U.S. stocks trade sharply lower as Russia-Ukraine conflict sparks nuclear fears

U.S. stock indexes were down sharply Friday afternoon despite February jobs data beating forecasts, as investors instead focused on a worsening conflict between Russia and Ukraine that resulted in a fire at a nuclear power plant earlier in the day.

The S&P 500 index fell for the fourth time in five days and commodity price indexes were on track for the biggest weekly rise since the 1970s as sanctions on Russia threatened to cause supply disruptions in oil, natural gas, industrial metals and grains.

How are stock indexes trading?
  • Dow Jones Industrial Average
    dropped 353 points, or 1%, to about 33,442.

  • S&P 500 index
    fell about 53 points, or 1.2%, to about 4,311.

  • The Nasdaq Composite Index
    dropped about 263 points, or 1.9%, to 13,275.

On Thursday, the stock market failed to hold on to gains. The Dow closed down 96.69 points, or 0.3%, to 33,794.66; the S&P 500 fell 23.05 points, or 0.5%, ending at 4,363.49; and the Nasdaq Composite ended 214.07 points lower, or 1.6%, finishing at 13,537.94.

For the week, the Dow is heading for a 1.8% drop while the S&P 500 is on track to fall 1.7% and the Nasdaq is poised to lose 3.1%, according to FactSet data.

What’s driving markets?

Stocks were falling as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine overshadowed positive U.S. employment data for February that was released Friday morning.

February nonfarm payrolls climbed 678,000, versus a forecast of 440,000. U.S. average hourly earnings rose 1 cent to $31.58 and hours worked rose 0.1 hour.

“You couldn’t have asked for a better jobs report and yet the market is really taking it on the chin today,” said Ellen Hazen, chief market strategist at F.L.Putnam, in a phone interview Friday. “The deteriorating situation in Ukraine is driving the markets.”

Investors were focused on news of a now-extinguished fire at a nuclear power plant in the Ukrainian city of Enerhodar that had been shelled by Russian troops. The plant reportedly has six reactors, and three had been offline before the attack, according to Associated Press reports. Russian military has seized the nuclear power plant, which is the biggest in Europe, the AP reported Friday afternoon.

Russia gaining control of the nuclear plant heightens concern that its military will continue to take over other Ukrainian infrastructure such as energy, water, and  telecommunications, Hazen told MarketWatch.

Dow futures plunged about 500 points immediately after the first reports of the nuclear plant fire emerged late Thursday, with the S&P 500 and Nasdaq-100 futures following a similar path.

Ukrainian state emergency services later said on Facebook
that the fire had been in a training building and had been contained. The regional military service said early measurements on Friday showed radiation was “unchanged” and was posing no danger to the population.

“Traders may be unwilling to hold risk over the weekend, given the reality of a hot war in Ukraine and that the situation can move in any direction,” said a Saxo Bank strategy team, in a note to clients.

Investors were flocking to safe-haven assets, such as gold and the dollar, with the euro
plunging 1.4% to $1.0906, a level not seen in nearly two years.

Crude oil prices
remained elevated, with West Texas Intermediate crude for April delivery
up more than 6% at $114.83 a barrel on Friday afternoon.

“Russia is still exporting energy, but an estimated 70% of Russia’s oil exports may be on hold because of uncertainty among traders and shippers of Russian oil over how the various sanctions apply to their operations,” the global investment strategy team at Wells Fargo Investment Institute, said in a note Friday.

Which companies are in focus?
  • Airbnb Inc.
    said it would suspend operations in Russia and Belarus, according to a tweet from Chief Executive Officer Brian Chesky. Airbnb shares were down 7.3% Friday afternoon. Microsoft Corp.
    also said it was suspending new sales and services in Moscow. Its shares were down 2.4%.

  • Travel stocks were weak Friday, with shares of United Airlines
    dropping 10%. Shares of Delta Air Lines
    fell 6% while American Airlines
    declined 7.5%.

  • The NYSE ARCA exchange has halted trading in the iShares MSCI Russia exchange-traded fund
    according to a press release from BlackRock, the ETF’s issuer.

How are other assets faring?
  • The yield on the 10-year Treasury note TMUBMUSD10Y was down about 11 basis points at around 1.73%. Yields and prices move in opposite directions.

  • The ICE U.S. Dollar Index DXY, a measure of the currency against a basket of six major rivals, was up 0.8%.

  • Gold futures GC00 rose 1.8% to $1,970.10 an ounce.

  • Bitcoin BTCUSD was down 4.6% at $40,199.

  • In European equities, the Stoxx Europe 600 SXXP closed 3.6% lower Friday for a weekly slide of 7%. London’s FTSE 100 UKX fell 3.5% Friday and lost 6.7% for the week. Both indexes saw their largest weekly percentage drop since March 2020, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

  • In Asia, the Shanghai Composite SHCOMP closed down 1% Friday and slipped 0.1% for the week. The Hang Seng Index HSI declined 2.5% in Hong Kong Friday for a weekly drop of 3.8%. Japan’s Nikkei 225 NIK gave up 2.2% Friday and slid 1.85% for the week.

-Barbara Kollmeyer contributed to this report.

By Sia