S&P 500 claws back earlier losses, turns positive, as it tries to avoid tumbling into a bear market

Stock futures were under pressure again on Thursday with the S&P 500 on the brink of a bear market. Investors continued to dump equities on fears Federal Reserve rate hikes to fight rapid inflation would tip the economy into a recession.

S&P 500 futures dropped 1.1% a day after the benchmark closed at 3,923.68, or 18.6% below its intraday record reached in January. It also sits around 18% below its record closing level. A close of 20% or more below its all-time high would mark a bear market, its first since the March 2020 pandemic sell-off.

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Futures on the Dow Jones Industrial average fell 348 points, or 1.1% a day after it experienced the biggest one-day drop since 2020. Nasdaq 100 futures slipped 0.9%.

“It’s a gloomy morning as stocks tumble pretty much everywhere on the planet. The Walmart/Target blow-ups cast an extremely negative pale over the tape, kicking over the modest stability witnessed in markets Thurs-Tues,” wrote Adam Crisafulli of Vital Knowledge.

On Wednesday, the Dow fell more than 1,100 points, marking its worst sell-off in nearly two years. The S&P 500 also suffered its worst one-day decline since June 2020, losing about 4%, and the Nasdaq Composite fell 4.7%.

Those losses were driven in part by back-to-back quarterly reports from Target and Walmart that showed higher fuel costs and restrained consumer demand hurting results amid the hottest inflation in decades. Even after a 24% drop on Wednesday, Target shares were lower again in premarket trading.

“The sharp sell-off in these companies (as well as other goods/consumer companies this quarter) shows that inflationary pressures are finally having an impact on earnings,” Barclays analyst Maneesh S. Deshpande said in a Thursday note. “Despite heightened inflation for a better part of a year, SPX margins and forward earnings have remained resilient, which no longer seems to be the case.”

Cisco was the latest major company to plunge on results with the tech bellwether down 11% in premarket trading Thursday. Cisco said after the bell Wednesday that quarterly revenue fell short of analysts expectations and it warned revenue would disappoint in the current quarter.

Shares of Kohl’s dropped 7% in premarket trading Thursday after the retailer posted a big earnings miss and cut its profit and sales outlook, citing inflationary consumer pressures.

Stocks have been under pressure all year starting with highly-valued tech stocks with little profits. But the sell-off has since spread to more sectors or the economy, including banks and retail, as growing fears of a recession spooked investors.

“The issue now is there really appears to be nowhere to hide,” wrote Jonathan Krinsky, a chart analyst with BTIG. On Wednesday, “they came for consumer names, but they still sold beaten down growth. In other words, money is rotating into cash instead of between different sectors.”

“While it won’t be a straight line, [this] is confirmation that selling rallies in bear markets is much easier than buying dips,” Krinsky said.

Investors remained concerned that aggressive action by the central bank to tamp down inflation would spark a steeper downturn. During a Wall Street Journal Conference on Monday, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell reiterated his comments that “there won’t be any hesitation” to bring down inflation.

Several Wall Street strategists issued some dire forecasts for stocks should the Fed’s rate increases tip the economy into a recession. GDP in the first quarter decreased at a 1.4% rate and strategists fear a deeper downturn is ahead.

Meanwhile, U.S. weekly jobless claims came in at 218,000 for the week ending May 14, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Deutsche Bank cut its official target for the S&P 500 overnight but said a recession would bring even bigger losses.

“In the event we slide into a recession imminently, we see the market selloff going well beyond average, i.e., into the upper half of the historical range and given elevated initial overvaluation, -35% to -40% or S&P 500 3000,” wrote Binky Chadha, Deutsche Bank’s chief global strategist in a note.

The Dow has declined for seven straight weeks and is down 13% this year. The Nasdaq is down 27% in 2022.

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