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S&P, Nasdaq hit records, but investors eye possible market stress | Business and Economy News



United States stocks rose on Friday and the S&P and Nasdaq indexes registered their biggest weekly percentage gains since the US election in early November, boosted by optimism about earnings, stimulus talks and progress in vaccine roll-outs.

The S&P 500 rose for a fifth straight session in its longest streak of gains since August. The benchmark index and the Nasdaq posted record closing highs for a second day.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 92.38 points, or 0.3 percent, to 31,148.24, the S&P 500 gained 15.09 points, or 0.39 percent, at 3,886.83 and the Nasdaq Composite added 78.55 points, or 0.57 percent, at 13,856.30.

For the week, the S&P 500 gained 4.65 percent, the Nasdaq added 6.01 percent and the Dow increased 3.89 percent. The small-cap Russell 2000 index rose 7.7 percent for the week, its biggest weekly percentage gain since the week ended June 5.

But as the trading frenzy that took shares of GameStop Corp and other favourites of retail investors on a wild ride recedes, investors are eyeing signs of potential market stress that could weigh on broader stock performance in coming weeks.

For now, US equities appeared to be looking past the surge in volatility that led the S&P 500 to its biggest weekly decline since October last week, as solid earnings, fiscal stimulus expectations and progress in country-wide vaccination efforts lead stocks back to record highs.

Some investors, however, worried that the wild swings in shares of GameStop and other “meme stocks” may have exacerbated concerns about market volatility and elevated valuations that could make investors more risk-averse.

“The recent retail activity was concerning for the broader market,” said Benjamin Bowler, head of global equity derivatives research at BofA Global Research.

Liquidity in futures on the S&P 500 dried up as market makers and other investors sought to reduce risk during the GameStop surge, according to BofA analysts. Earlier this week, “market fragility”, as measured by the bank, stood at its highest level since March 2020, making US equities exceptionally vulnerable to sudden market shocks, the firm said.

Moves in the Cboe Volatility Index, known as Wall Street’s “fear gauge”, also indicated that investors may be more sensitive to market turbulence than usual: last Wednesday the index surged 14 points, its biggest one-day gain since March, as the S&P 500 lost 2.6 percent.

The fear gauge’s climb was eight to 10 points greater than the expected move following such a drop in the S&P 500, according to Stuart Kaiser, strategist at UBS. The outsized reaction, he said, points to heightened jitters among investors that could suggest bigger market sell-offs in response to negative developments.

The VIX has since reverted to its post-pandemic lows as US equities have rallied this week. Even so, “I wouldn’t say we’re completely past it yet,” Kaiser said.

Next week, investors will be looking towards quarterly corporate results from Cisco Systems Inc, General Motors Co and Walt Disney Co as well as data on US consumer prices.

For now, options markets are not quite giving a green light.

Investor demand for calls on the S&P 500, used to position for gains in the index, has jumped after having plummeted to a multi-decade low earlier in the week, according to Charlie McElligott, managing director, cross-asset macro strategy at Nomura. The swing in demand points to risk of a pullback and choppy trade in the next few weeks, he said.

Longer-term, several market analysts said the GameStop effect may be no more than a blip on the radar screen for markets as a whole. Drops in the VIX of 20 percent or more tend to bode well for stocks, with the S&P 500 rising 2.6 percent a month later, according to Christopher Murphy, co-head of derivatives strategy at Susquehanna Financial Group.

Still, the exuberance that magnified the market’s fault lines has not completely faded. According to data from Trade Alert, options activity showed heavy demand for upside calls in the SPDR S&P Retail ETF, which includes GameStop, and the iShares Silver Trust, which was also rocked by retail trading.

As a result, some investors said they plan to tread cautiously for the time being, especially if they are exposed to passive funds that hold a large number of small-cap stocks that could be sensitive to a sudden retail frenzy.

“Time will tell whether this has a more lasting effect on the market,” said Matt Forester, chief investment officer of Lockwood Advisors. “We need to police our holdings to make sure we’re not overly exposed to these trends.”

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US says it has jabbed 82 million people, topping the world | Coronavirus pandemic News



But coronavirus rates have plateaued over the past week, raising concern over yet another surge in cases and deaths.

The United States has administered 82 million coronavirus vaccine shots, White House officials announced on Friday, more than any other country in the world.

During a coronavirus task force news conference, health officials said 55 percent of Americans aged 65 and older have now received at least one shot, up from 8 percent just six weeks ago.

“Altogether we’ve administered more than 82 million shots, more than any country in the world,” said Andy Slavitt, White House senior adviser for the COVID-19 response team.

But the US has also suffered more deaths than any other country in the world – more than 518,000 Americans have lost their lives to the disease.

President Joe Biden has set a goal of 100 million vaccines administered during his first 100 days in office [File: Evan Vucci/AP Photo]

US President Joe Biden who took office in January has promised to make tackling the pandemic a top priority for his administration and has set a target to vaccinate 100 million Americans by early May – to coincide with his 100 days in office. He has said the country is well under way to meeting that goal.

Officials say 450 vaccination sites have been set up around the country which has sped up the effort and they have plans to open up more sites as vaccine supplies increase over the next weeks.

In an effort to further boost the campaign, last week the US gave emergency approval to use a third vaccine produced by drugmaker Johnson & Johnson. Biden has also announced that the US will manufacture the J&J vaccine, a shot that requires only one dose, further speeding up the effort.

But even with the vaccination campaign well under way, officials said deaths and infection rates have plateaued in recent days, indicating that the nation could be at risk of yet another surge.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said amid the rapid spread of new variants across the country, Americans need to ‘double down’ on protection measures of wearing masks, maintaining social distance and frequent hand washing [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Rochelle Walensky, said over the past week, there have been daily 60,000-70,000 new coronavirus cases, and 1,900 Americans have been dying every day.

“The current numbers remain concerning,” Walensky said, “cases and deaths are still too high, and have now plateaued for more than week.”

Amid the rapid spread of new variants, which have been detected in 48 US states, she urged Americans need to “double down” on protection measures of wearing masks, maintaining social distance and frequent hand washing.

“I know that the idea of relaxing mask wearing and getting back to every day activities is appealing,” she said, “but we’re not there yet.”

Several states have in recent days announced the easing of coronavirus restrictions on businesses and have lifted statewide mandates to wear masks. Health officials have responded with concern and urged Americans to continue to wear masks and follow precautions set under federal guidelines.

Biden blasted the decisions by state governors on Thursday, calling it “a big mistake” and “the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking.”

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor said the current numbers are an indication of a likely fourth surge in cases.

“When you have that much viral activity in a plateau it almost invariably means that you are at risk for another spike,” he said.

During the briefing on Friday, officials also announced that the CDC is working on publishing guidance for fully vaccinated individuals, indicating which activities they may or may not be able to resume.

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