Global stocks fall sharply on worries about rates, economy

Stocks tumbled worldwide Friday on more signs the global economy is weakening, just as central banks raise the pressure even more with additional interest rate hikes.

The S&P 500 fell 2.2% in early afternoon trading, adding a dismal cap on what’s already been a rough week. It’s almost all the way back to its lowest point of the year, reached in mid-June, as Wall Street remains mired in its bear market. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is nearly 20% below its record set early this year. If it closes at or below that level, it would join other major indexes that already passed the threshold.

European stocks fell just as sharply or more after preliminary data there suggested business activity had its worst monthly contraction since the start of 2021. Adding to the pressure was a new plan announced in London to cut taxes, which sent U.K. yields soaring because it could ultimately force its central bank to raise rates even more sharply.

The Federal Reserve and other central banks around the world aggressively hiked interest rates this week in hopes of undercutting high inflation, with more big increases promised for the future. But such moves also put the brakes on their economies, threatening recessions as growth slows worldwide. Besides Friday’s discouraging data on European business activity, a separate report suggested U.S. activity is also still shrinking, though not quite as badly as in earlier months.

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“Financial markets are now fully absorbing the Fed’s harsh message that there will be no retreat from the inflation fight,” Douglas Porter, chief economist at BMO Capital Markets.

Crude oil prices tumbled to their lowest levels since early this year on worries that a weaker global economy will burn less fuel. Cryptocurrency prices also fell sharply because higher interest rates tend to hit hardest the investments that look the priciest or the most risky.

Even gold fell in the worldwide rout, as bonds paying higher yields make investments that pay no interest look less attractive. Meanwhile the U.S. dollar has been moving sharply higher against other currencies. That can hurt profits for U.S. companies with lots of overseas business, as well as put a financial squeeze on much of the developing world.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 602 points, or 2%, to 29,489 and the Nasdaq fell 2.1% as of 12:05 p.m. Eastern. Smaller company stocks did even worse. The Russell 2000 fell 3%. U.S. crude oil prices slipped 6.1% and weighed heavily on energy stocks.

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The Federal Reserve on Wednesday lifted its benchmark rate, which affects many consumer and business loans, to a range of 3% to 3.25%. It was at virtually zero at the start of the year. The Fed also released a forecast suggesting its benchmark rate could be 4.4% by the year’s end, a full point higher than envisioned in June.

Treasury yields have climbed to multiyear highs as interest rates rise. The yield on the 2-year Treasury, which tends to follow expectations for Federal Reserve action, rose to 4.20% from 4.12% late Thursday. It is trading at its highest level since 2007. The yield on the 10-year Treasury, which influences mortgage rates, slipped to 3.68% from 3.71%.

The higher rates mean Goldman Sachs strategists say a majority of their clients now see a “hard landing” that pulls the economy sharply lower as inevitable. The question for them is just on the timing, magnitude and length of a potential recession.

Higher interest rates hurt all kinds of investments, but stocks could stay steady as long as corporate profits grow strongly. The problem is that many analyst are beginning to cut their forecasts for upcoming earnings because of higher rates and worries about a possible recession.

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In the U.S., the jobs market has remained remarkably solid, and many analysts think the economy grew in the summer quarter after shrinking in the first six months of the year. But the encouraging signs also suggest the Fed may have to jack rates even higher to get the cooling needed to bring down inflation.

Some key areas of the economy are already weakening. Mortgage rates have reached 14-year highs, causing sales of existing homes to drop 20% in the past year. But other areas that do best when rates are low are also hurting.

In Europe, meanwhile, the already fragile economy is dealing with the effects of war on its eastern front following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The European Central Bank is hiking its key interest rate to combat inflation even as the region’s economy is already expected to plunge into a recession. And in Asia, China’s economy is contending with still-strict measures meant to limit COVID infections that also hurt businesses.

While Friday’s economic reports were discouraging, few on Wall Street saw them as enough to convince the Fed and other central banks to soften their stance on raising rates. So they just reinforced the fear that rates will keep rising in the face of already slowing economies.

Economics Writer Christopher Rugaber and Business Writers Joe McDonald and Matt Ott contributed to this report.

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