By Damian J. Troise and Alex Veiga
A late burst of selling left stocks broadly lower on Wall Street Thursday, as the market closed out its worst quarter since the pandemic broke out two years ago.
Despite posting a 3.6% gain for March, a dismal January and February left U.S. indexes lower for the year to date. The S&P 500 ended the day 1.6% lower, bringing its loss since the beginning of the year to 4.9%.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1.6%, while the Nasdaq composite fell 1.5%. Both indexes also notched gains for March, thanks largely to a market rally in the two weeks heading into this week.
Oil prices fell as President Joe Biden ordered the release of up to 1 million barrels of oil per day from the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve. The move to pump more oil into the market is part of an effort to control energy prices, which are up nearly 40% globally this year.
Wall Street's downbeat finish to March comes as investors try to navigate the market risks amid surging inflation, geopolitical instability and uncertainty over how aggressively the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates to quash inflation.
“Yesterday’s weakness and some weakness today may be in response to sentiment that’s a little more cautious given the recent strength in the last two weeks and the ongoing uncertainty related to inflation and earnings,” said Terry Sandven, chief equity strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management.
The S&P 500 fell 72.04 points to 4,530.41. The Dow fell 550.46 points to 34,678.35, and the Nasdaq slid 221.76 points to 14,220.52.
Smaller company stocks also fell. The Russell 2000 index dropped 20.94 points, or 1%, to 2,070.13.
About 85% of stocks in the benchmark S&P 500 fell. Much of the movement seemed like a “consolidation” for investors, said Scott Wren, senior global market strategist at Wells Fargo Investment Institute.
“This is a little give back today just from the big run that we had, but we’re hanging in here pretty well,” Wren said. Major indexes fell on Wednesday to end a four-day winning streak.
Technology and communications stocks were among the biggest weights on the market. Many of the companies in those sectors have pricey stock values that tend to give the broader market a more forceful push either up or down. Chipmaker Intel fell 3.6%, while Facebook parent Meta Platforms slid 2.4%.
Banks also fell along with bond yields, which forces interest rates on loans lower, making lending less profitable for banks. The yield on the 10-year Treasury slipped to 2.34% from 2.36% late Wednesday. Bank of America fell 4.1%.
U.S. crude oil prices fell 7% and Brent, the international standard, fell 4.9%. The pullback slightly trimmed what have been soaring oil prices amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The conflict has elevated concerns that tightened supplies will only worsen persistently rising inflation that threatens businesses and consumers globally.
An inflation gauge that is closely monitored by the Federal Reserve jumped 6.4% in February compared with a year ago, marking the largest year-over-year rise since January 1982.
Energy prices have been a key factor in pushing inflation higher and Biden's plan to release more oil into the system comes as little relief is expected from the oil cartel OPEC. The cartel and its allied oil producers including Russia are sticking to a modest increase in the amount of crude they pump to the world, a step that supports higher prices.
Higher prices for everything from energy to food has been a key concern of central banks globally, which are moving to raise interest rates to help temper the impact. Investors have been trying to measure how the economy and companies will fare amid rising inflation, higher interest rates, the war in Ukraine and other factors. That has made for a rocky start to the year.
Investors received a lukewarm update on the job market on Thursday. More Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, but layoffs remain at historic lows. Wall Street will get a fuller report on Friday when the Labor Department releases employment data for March.
Updated on March 31, 2022, at 5:17 p.m. ET.