Dow slammed by 900 points in worst drop of 2021 on fears about new Covid variant

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Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images

U.S. stocks dropped sharply on Friday as a new Covid variant found in South Africa triggered a global shift away from risk assets.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 900 points, or 2.8%, for its worst day of the year, while the S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite slid 2.1% and 2%, respectively. Friday is a shortened trading day because of the Thanksgiving holiday with U.S. markets closing at 1 p.m. ET.

The downward moves came after WHO officials on Thursday warned of a new Covid-19 variant that’s been detected in South Africa. The new variant contains more mutations to the spike protein, the component of the virus that binds to cells, than the highly contagious delta variant. Because of these mutations, scientists fear it could have increased resistance to vaccines, though WHO said further investigation is needed.

The United Kingdom temporarily suspended flights from six African countries due to the variant. Israel barred travel to several nations after reporting one case in a traveler. Two cases were identified in Hong Kong. Belgium also confirmed a case.

“When I read that there’s one [case] in Belgium and one in Botswana, we’re going to wake up next week and find one in this country. And I’m not going to recommend anyone buy anything today until we’re sure that isn’t going to happen, and I can’t be sure that it won’t,” CNBC’s Jim Cramer said.

Bond prices rose and yields tumbled amid a flight to safety. The yield on the benchmark U.S. 10-year Treasury note fell 12 basis points to 1.52% (1 basis point equals 0.01%). This was a sharp reversal as yields jumped earlier in the week to above 1.68% at one point. Bond yields move inversely to prices.

Asia markets were hit hard in Friday trade, with Japan’s Nikkei 225 and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index both falling more than 2%. Bitcoin fell 8%.

The Cboe Volatility Index, often referred to as Wall Street’s “fear gauge,” rose to 28, its highest level in two months. Oil prices also tumbled, with U.S. crude futures down 10% and breaking below $70 per barrel.

Travel-related stocks were hit hardest with Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean down 13.5% and 11.9%, respectively. United Airlines dropped more than 13%, while American Airlines dropped 12.5%. Boeing lost more than 7% and Marriott International fell nearly 10%.

Bank shares retreated on fears of the slowdown in economic activity and the retreat in rates. Bank of America dropped 5.3% and Citigroup slid 4.8%.

Industrials linked to the global economy declined led by Caterpillar off by 4.9%. Dow Inc. shed 3.8%. Chevron dropped 3.6% as energy stocks reacted to the rollover in crude prices.

On the flip side, investors huddled into the vaccine makers. Moderna shares surged 27%. Pfizer shares added 5%.

Some of the stay-at-home plays that gained in the earlier months of the pandemic were higher again. Zoom Video added more than 7% and Peloton gained 4%.

“It’s important to stress that very little is known at this point about this latest strain, including whether it can evade vaccines or how severe it is relative to other mutations. Therefore, it’s hard to make any informed investment decisions at this point,” Bespoke Investment Group’s Paul Hickey said in a note to clients. “Historically speaking, chasing a rally or selling into a sharp decline (especially on a very illiquid trading day) rarely ends up being profitable, but that isn’t stopping a lot of people this morning.”

Several investment professionals told CNBC on Friday that the sell-off could be a buying opportunity.

“Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, probably not as many traders on the desks with an early close today. So potentially lower liquidity is causing some of the pullback,” Ajene Oden of BNY Mellon Investor Solutions said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “But the reaction we’re seeing is a buying opportunity for investors. We have to think long-term.”

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Markets were closed on Thursday for Thanksgiving, so stocks are coming off of slight gains on Wednesday that staunched the week’s losses for the S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite. Trading volume tends to be light during holiday weeks.

The Nasdaq is down 3% for the week, while the S&P 500 and Dow are off by about 2% each, respectively.

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