Stocks sink as Omicron worries persist, investors move to havens

Markets are also digesting comments earlier in the week from United States Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, who said the US central bank will consider ending bond purchases a few months earlier than had been anticipated.

Global stock markets faltered on Friday, while benchmark bond yields gave up earlier gains after data showed United States job growth slowed considerably in November and markets stayed volatile as investors assess implications from the new Omicron coronavirus variant.

After opening higher, Wall Street’s main indexes quickly turned negative in morning trading. European markets also lost gains. MSCI’s gauge of stocks across the globe shed 0.52 percent.

Omicron has gained a foothold in Asia, Africa, the Americas, the Middle East and Europe and has reached seven of the nine provinces of South Africa, where it was first identified. Many governments have tightened travel rules to keep the variant out.

“The top issue is still this whole Omicron variant. There are enormous amounts of uncertainty there,” said Randy Frederick, vice president of trading and derivatives for Charles Schwab in Austin, Texas in the US. “Volatility means big moves in both directions and we have had a lot of up days and a lot of down days that are both very sizable here just in the last week … The market is a bit treacherous.”

The US Department of Labor said US nonfarm payrolls increased by 210,000 jobs last month, well below the 550,000 jobs economists polled by Reuters had forecast, but the unemployment rate plunged to a 21-month low of 4.2 percent, suggesting the labour market was rapidly tightening.

“On the surface, the numbers came in disappointing because they did not match expectations, but it was not a weak report,” said Kevin Flanagan, head of fixed income strategy at WisdomTree.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 121.78 points, or 0.35 percent, to 34,518.01, the S&P 500 lost 33.34 points, or 0.73 percent, to 4,543.76 and the Nasdaq Composite Index dropped 244.47 points, or 1.59 percent, to 15,136.85.

The pan-European STOXX 600 index lost 0.43 percent.

The data caps a turbulent week as investors assess the implications of the Omicron variant and what that means for growth, inflation and ultimately central bank policy.

Markets were also digesting comments earlier in the week from Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, who said US central bankers in December will discuss whether to end their bond purchases a few months earlier than had been anticipated.

US Treasury yields were mixed in choppy trading after initially falling on the closely watched jobs data.

Oil prices climbed after the producer group OPEC+ (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies) said it could review its policy to hike output at short notice if oil demand collapsed due to a rising number of coronavirus pandemic lockdowns.

US crude recently rose 3.11 percent to $68.57 per barrel and Brent was at $72.03, up 3.39 percent on the day.

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