Wall Street staged a comeback in March as the U.S. economy showed its resilience.
The fallout from the war in Ukraine also lifted shares of some companies. As oil prices surged, major oil producers rallied. The best performer among them was Occidental Petroleum, which climbed about 33 percent in March and has risen 51 percent since the invasion began on Feb. 24. The defense company Lockheed Martin is also up more than 14 percent since the start of the war.
Investors also bid up shares of some of the biggest companies, after share prices were hammered amid the panic over whether high interest rates would squelch interest in risky investments. Apple climbed 17 percent from its lowest point in March, while Tesla rose 42 percent. Because of their size — Apple’s gains have lifted its valuation to close to $3 trillion again — the big technology companies can carry the entire S&P 500 higher. Alphabet, Microsoft and Meta were also higher in March.
Wall Street’s gain this month came even as the Federal Reserve raised interest rates in efforts to ease inflation by making borrowing costs more expensive. The central bank rolled out its first quarter-point rate increase in the middle of the month and projected six more increases this year. With inflation already running at its fastest pace in 40 years, and after the Fed signaled that it was teeing up a rate increase, investors expected the move.
But last week, the Fed’s chair, Jerome H. Powell, spurred new concerns when he said that the Fed was prepared to raise rates more quickly if necessary. Economists are worried that a more rapid approach in raising interest rates could lead the economy into a recession by slowing down consumer demand too much.
“The fear is that it’s always hard to know how many rate hikes will just slow the economy or whether it may go a bit too far and tip the economy into a recession,” said Franziska Palmas, a markets economist at Capital Economics. “There’s so many things going on in the economy that it’s not that easy for the central bank to calibrate exactly the right amount of tightening.”
As stocks rallied though, it was the bond market that signaled rising recession fears by narrowing the difference between short-term interest rates and long-term ones. In a growing economy, short-term interest rates are usually notably lower than long-term ones. For example, at the start of the year, the yield on 2-year Treasury notes stood at 0.78 percent, while the yield on 10-year Treasury notes was 1.63 percent.
Now, the two interest rates are nearly the same at about 2.3 percent. This type of move usually indicates that investors anticipate a slowdown in growth in the near future.
“If investors as a whole believe that interest rates will be flat or lower in the years ahead relative to today’s rates, it suggests the markets are pricing in a weakening economy,” said John Canavan, lead analyst at Oxford Economics.
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