Stock futures were flat to slightly weaker on Sunday evening, as investors weighed new COVID-19 infections — which are leading to rising deaths and a record number of hospitalizations across the U.S. — against the rapidly unfolding timetable for the deployment of a vaccine.
Investors have been broadly encouraged by the steady flow of positive news over a coronavirus cure. Pfizer (PFE) and BioNTech (BNTX) said on Friday they plan to file for an emergency use authorization with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which would allow them to have their vaccine used in the U.S. starting in December.
Expectations for a relatively quick vaccine rollout have boosted the broader market, as well as prospects for 2021 growth, while leading investors to unwind technology-heavy “stay at home” bets that previously bolstered key stocks like Netflix (NFLX), Amazon (AMZN), Zoom (ZOOM) and other names. Both the Dow (^DJI) and S&P 500 (^GSPC) notched record closing highs last week, as traders rode a wave of exuberance sparked by the vaccine news.
However, the near term outlook remains clouded by the relentless scourge of more COVID-19 infections, and the inability of Washington’s warring parties to agree on stimulus. The current wave of the virus is swamping the darkest days of March and April, threatening to overshadow the holidays and drag on growth.
“This winter will be grim, and we believe the economy will contract again in 1Q, albeit at ‘only’ a 1.0% annualized rate,” JPMorgan Chase’s economics team wrote in a lengthy research note last week.
“The economy no longer has that tailwind; instead it now faces the headwind of increasing restrictions on activity. The holiday season—from Thanksgiving through New Year’s—threatens a further increase in cases,” the bank said.
Last week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed to restart talks on a deal. The news momentarily sparked a boost for stocks, and fanned hopes that a lame-duck session could produce a bargain ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration in January.
However, the Senate has already adjourned for the Thanksgiving holiday, and will not meet again for another full session until the end of the month. That narrows the window of opportunity for new legislation to get passed.
Meanwhile, economists are weighing whether a brewing dispute between the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve will unsettle markets. The central bank said on Friday it would return unused emergency money allocated by the Treasury, a day after U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin ordered the Fed to allow nine of its 13 liquidity facilities to close on December 31.
“The extent to which any committed funds would eventually be returned remains unclear, but even if it happened, we do not think that [general account] or reserve balances (or issuance) would be affected,” Goldman Sachs said in a research note over the weekend.
“Of course, on further stimulus, there would be additional issuance, but we see this as separate from the Fed facility discussion. On the margins, non-continuation of some backstops may increase the odds of the Fed compensating in other areas,” the bank added.
6:20 p.m. ET Sunday: Stock futures open near the unchanged mark
Here were the main moves in equity markets, as of 6:20 p.m. ET Sunday:
S&P 500 futures (ES=F): 3356.00, +1.75
Dow futures (YM=F): 29202, -10
Nasdaq futures (NQ=F): 11926.75, +22