Record S&P 500 Masks a Fear Trade That's Gripping Stock Market

Surveying the recent stretch of records for the S&P 500 Index, you’d be tempted to think that when it comes to markets, everything is awesome. Inflation fears have eased, economic indicators are strengthening and the Federal Reserve remains accommodative.

But look past the sunshine and lollipops, and you’ll find a growing sense of defensiveness.

Investors are taking risk off the table as the fast-spreading delta variant of the coronavirus causes fresh outbreaks in many parts of the world. Airline and cruise stocks are being dumped while there’s a renewed embrace of the stay-at-home trade. Businesses’ hiring woes have increased concerns over rising wages, prompting a pivot toward pricing power. Sectors seen as hardy growers, like technology, are back on top.

There are even indications that the S&P 500’s 90% rally from the pandemic bottom could be due for a pause, since fewer stocks are participating in the latest leg up. This has helped put a halt to massive equity inflows and driven a sharp demand for government bonds.

“What the market is starting to recognize is that all the good news cannot be good in every single way,” Daniel Skelly, head of market research and strategy at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, said in an interview on Bloomberg TV and Radio. “There is a realization that earnings revisions are starting to plateau and roll over.”

The S&P 500 advanced for a fifth week in six, closing above 4,300 for the first time in history. The tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 Index outperformed, rounding out seven straight weekly gains, the longest streak since November 2019. Economically sensitive shares lagged and the Russell 2000 of smaller companies fell.