Stocks on Wall Street slid on Wednesday for a second consecutive session, continuing their tumultuous ride since the discovery of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus last week.
The S&P 500 fell 1.2 percent, as an early gain quickly faded following news that the variant had been detected in the United States. The Nasdaq composite lost 1.8 percent.
Early gains by oil futures also faded. West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, fell about 1 percent to $65.57, erasing earlier gains of as much as 5 percent.
Shares of companies likely to be most affected by an increase in pandemic precautions were among the hardest hit. American Airlines fell 8 percent and was one of the worst performers in the S&P 500. United Airlines was down nearly as much, as were the cruise lines like Norwegian and Carnival.
Even as they have cautioned against overreacting to the news of a new variant before much is known about it, several world governments have put in place restrictions on travel — including limits on entry for visitors from southern Africa, where the variant was first detected, and blanket bans on all foreigners.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that it plans to toughen coronavirus testing and screening requirements for international fliers bound for the country. The agency is considering requiring travelers to provide a negative result from a test taken within 24 hours before departure, among other steps, a spokesman said Tuesday night.
Investors also snapped up shares of companies that could benefit from a renewed vigilance to a spreading virus. Clorox rose nearly 2 percent. Quest Diagnostics, a lab company with a fast-growing Covid testing business, rose 1.7 percent. Becton, Dickinson and Company, which makes an at-home Covid test rose 1.9 percent.
As they consider the risk of the Omicron variant, and the potential impact on the global economy as governments once again restrict travel and tighten testing requirements, investors are also grappling with a shifting outlook for interest rates.
On Tuesday, the S&P 500, the U.S. benchmark, declined 1.9 percent when the head of the Federal Reserve said that the central bank might speed up its plan to reduce support for the economy because of high inflation. The back-to-back declines added up to a 3.1 percent drop for the benchmark index, its worst two-day dive since October 2020.
A measure of volatility in the U.S. stock market surged to its highest since early March on Friday after the new Omicron variant was reported by researchers in South Africa. The VIX index has declined a little since then, but it remains above levels seen in the past two months.
Traders had pushed back their expectations about when the Fed might eventually raise interest rates, in light of the news about the variant and some predictions that current vaccines will be less effective against it. But Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said on Tuesday that the risk of higher inflation had increased. If the central bank finishes tapering its bond-buying program sooner than expected, it could also raise interest rates sooner.
Yields on long-term Treasury bonds dropped, suggesting that investors were moving money out of shares and into the safety of government securities as they await more information about the Omicron variant. (Yields on Treasury bonds fall as prices rise.)
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, often viewed as a barometer of the market’s expectations for economic growth and inflation, dropped to about 1.43 percent, the lowest level in over two months.
The Omicron variant could prolong the bottlenecks and shortages that have caused inflation to run hotter than expected, a risk Fed officials will assess as they “grapple” with how quickly to remove economic support, another Fed official said.
“Clearly, it adds a lot of uncertainty to the outlook,” John C. Williams, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said in an interview The New York Times that was published on Wednesday.