Wall Street slips as stocks of smaller banks keep sliding

Pointers from the financial market's performance in 2017 for the upcoming year. Lucas Jackson/Reuters
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NEW YORK (AP) — Stocks of smaller U.S. banks are continuing to tumble Thursday, as Wall Street hunts for what may be next to crack in the struggling industry, but losses for the overall market were more modest.

The S&P 500 was 0.3% lower in morning trading following a whirlwind several days dominated by worries about banks. They may be bending under the weight of the fastest set of hikes to interest rates in decades.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 216 points, or 0.7%, at 31,658 as of 10:29 a.m. Eastern time, and the Nasdaq composite was 0.1% lower.

Across the Atlantic, European stocks rose modestly after the European Central Bank announced a hefty increase to interest rates. They were stabilizing after dropping sharply Wednesday on worries about Credit Suisse. The Swiss bank has been battling troubles for years, but its plunge to a record low raised concerns just as more attention shines on the wider industry.

Credit Suisse’s stock in Switzerland leaped nearly 18% Thursday after it said it will strengthen its finances by borrowing up to 50 billion Swiss francs ($54 billion) from the Swiss National Bank.

But smaller U.S. banks continued to drop as investors looked for others that could suffer a similar run by depositors as Silicon Valley Bank, which collapsed last week into the second-biggest bank failure in U.S. history.

Wall Street has focused on banks with many depositors above the $250,000 limit that’s insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., as well those that serve lots of tech startups and other highly connected people that can spread worries about a bank’s strength quickly.

First Republic Bank has been at the center of the market’s swivels, and it fell 32.7%. It’s down 74% this week alone.

Much of the damage for banks is seen as the result of the Federal Reserve’s fastest barrage of hikes to interest rates in decades. They’ve shocked the system following years of historically easy conditions in hopes of driving down painfully high inflation.

Higher rates can tame inflation by slowing the economy, but they raise the risk of a recession later on. They also hurt prices for stocks, bonds and other investments. That latter factor was one of the issues hurting Silicon Valley Bank because high rates forced down the value of its bond investments.

Wall Street increasingly expects banks’ struggles to push the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates next week by only a quarter of a percentage point. That would be the same sized increase as last month’s, and it would be counter to expectations from earlier this month that it could hike by 0.50 points as it had been potentially signaling.

Some traders are also betting on the possibility the Fed could take a pause on rate hikes next week.

The European Central Bank on Thursday raised its key interest rate by half a percentage point, brushing aside speculation that it may reduce the size because of all the turmoil around banks.

Some of Wall Street’s wildest action this week has been in the bond market, as traders rush to guess where the Fed is heading.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury fell to 3.38% from 3.47% late Wednesday. It was above 4% earlier this month, and it helps set rates for mortgages and other important loans.

All the stress in the banking system is raising worries about a potential recession because of how important smaller and mid-sized banks are to making loans to businesses across the country. Oil prices have slid this week on such fears.

Economists at Goldman Sachs said all the near-term uncertainty surrounding small banks mean they see a 35% probability of a recession in the next 12 months. That’s up from their prior forecast of 25%.

Reports on the U.S. economy, meanwhile, continue to show mixed signals.

The job market looks remarkably solid, and a report said fewer workers applied for unemployment benefits last week than expected. .

But other pockets of the economy are continuing to show weakness. Manufacturing has struggled, for example, and a measure of activity in the mid-Atlantic region weakened by more than expected.

The housing market has also been struggling under the weight of higher mortgage rates, though homebuilders broke ground on more projects last month than expected. That could be a signal the industry is finding some stability.

On Wall Street, besides smaller banks, stocks of companies in the energy industry were falling to some of the market’s sharpest losses. They were hurt by weaker prices for crude.

On the winning side was Adobe, which rose 3.8% after reporting stronger revenue and profit for its latest quarter than analysts expected.