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Stocks dip, yields drop on latest signs of slowing economy


STOCKS WERE dipping on Wall Street yesterday, and Treasury yields were dropping following the latest signals that the United States economy is slowing under the weight of much higher interest rates.

The S&P 500 was 0.6 per cent lower in afternoon trading, a day after it broke a four-day winning streak. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was edging up by three points, or less than 0.1 per cent, to 33,405, as of 1:04 p.m. Eastern time, while the Nasdaq composite was 1.5 per cent lower.

The moves were sharper in the bond market, where yields sank following weaker-than-expected reports on the health of US services industries and the job market. They’re the latest signs that the economy is losing momentum following a feverish set of hikes to interest rates by the Federal Reserve meant to get inflation under control.

One report from the Institute for Supply Management said that growth in the US services sector slowed last month by more than economists expected, as the pace of new orders cooled. A separate report suggested private employers added 145,000 jobs in March, down sharply from February’s 261,000. Perhaps more importantly for markets, pay raises also weakened for workers, according to the ADP Research Institute.

“Our March payroll data is one of several signals that the economy is slowing,” said Nela Richardson, chief economist at ADP. “Employers are pulling back from a year of strong hiring, and pay growth, after a three-month plateau, is inching down.”

Higher interest rates can undercut inflation, but only by slowing the entire economy with a blunt hammer. The hope is that the Fed can pull off the tricky balancing act of slowing the economy and job market just enough to stamp out high inflation, but not so much that it causes a recession. The Fed has hiked rates over the last year at the fastest pace in decades.

ADP’s private payroll report could offer a preview of what tomorrow’s more comprehensive jobs report from the US government will show. Economists expect it to say employers added 240,000 jobs last month, down from 311,000 in February.

If the job market really is slowing from the strong growth that’s helped to prop up the larger economy recently, it could offer the Fed reason to pause on its hikes to interest rates.

That’s a big deal for markets not only because it could lessen the odds of an upcoming recession, which some economists already see as a high probability. Higher rates also drag on prices for stocks, bonds and other investments.

Other reports on the economy this week also came in weaker than expected, including readings on the number of job openings across the country and the health of the manufacturing sector.

The reports have traders largely betting the Fed will hold rates steady at its next meeting in May, which would be the first time that’s happened in more than a year. Many traders are also betting the Fed will have to cut rates later this year, something that can act like steroids for markets.

The Fed, though, has consistently said it doesn’t expect to cut rates this year. Inflation is still high, and the Fed has talked often about the risk of letting up on the battle too soon. Other central banks around the world are staying aggressive to fight it.

New Zealand’s central bank raised its key rate by half a percentage point to 5.25 per cent, double the size of what many economists were expecting. It was the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s 11th straight rate hike as it tries to cool inflation, which is running at 7.2 per cent, far above the bank’s target level of around 2.0 per cent.

On Wall Street, the majority of stocks were falling within the S&P 500, but many of the moves were modest.

On the winning side was Johnson & Johnson, which rose 3.6 per cent after it proposed to pay nearly $9 billion to cover allegations that its baby powder containing talc caused cancer. It was one of the biggest drivers of the Dow Jones Industrial Average’s gain yesterday.

In the bond market, the yield on the 10-year Treasury fell to 3.29 per cent from 3.34 per cent late on Tuesday. It helps set rates for mortgages and other loans. The two-year yield, which tends to move more on expectations for the Fed, dropped to 3.76 per cent from 3.82 per cent.

Gold was holding relatively steady at $2,036.50 per ounce. It’s up more than 11 per cent so far this year, after jumping last month amid worries about the strength of the global banking system.

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