Stock markets wobble on 2020 presidential election uncertainty

Stock, Dow futures volatile as investors await election results in battleground states that will determine US presidential win
NEW YORK -- Stocks are pushing higher again on Wednesday, but only after spinning through an election night dominated by surprises and sharp swings.

The S&P 500 was 2.9% higher and on pace for its best day in more than five months, as of 11:37 a.m. Eastern time. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 634 points, or 2.3%, at 28,114, and the Nasdaq composite jumped 4%.

The rally follows a tumultuous overnight session, where U.S. stock futures swung up, down and back again as results showed a race that's still too early to call between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. It's unclear when a winner can emerge.

Investors see cause for optimism if either candidate wins, but much is at stake pending the results. They include prospects for the big economic stimulus effort, tax rate increases and tighter regulations on businesses that investors saw coming if Democrats swept the elections. Such a "blue wave" looks less likely, though, after Republicans held onto Senate seats considered vulnerable.

"The first information that people are digesting is that a split government is OK, and we can deal with this," said Melda Mergen, deputy global head of equities, Columbia Threadneedle. "No big changes are expected anytime soon on the policy side."

She cautioned, though, that the initial moves for the market may not last. "It's a very quick reaction without knowing the final results," she said. "It's emotional rather than rational."

Much of Tuesday's strength for Wall Street was due to big gains for technology stocks. Investors have increasingly seen these stocks as some of the safer bets in the market, able to grow their profits even in a pandemic as more of daily life shifts online.

They don't need a big stimulus effort for the economy as much as other companies, and the likelihood of Washington approving such a package dropped with the chances of a Democratic sweep. That led to the much better performance for the tech-heavy Nasdaq over other indexes. Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Google's parent company all roses at least 5%

Other areas of the stock market, where profits are more dependent on the strength of the economy, lagged behind. Financial stocks in the S&P 500 were close to flat. The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies edged up 0.6%.

Some of the market's sharpest moves overnight were in yields for U.S. government bonds, which had earlier risen on growing expectations for big economic stimulus.

The 10-year Treasury yield swung from 0.88% late Tuesday up to 0.94% as polls were closing. It then sank as low as 0.75% after Trump made premature claims of victories in several key states, Republicans held onto Senate seats and a couple economic reports came in weaker than expected. It sat at 0.77% in midday trading.

All the swings are a bit reminiscent of four years earlier, when Trump surprised the market by winning the White House. Markets initially tumbled after polls and the market's expectations proved to be so wrong in 2016, but they quickly turned around on expectations that Trump's pro-business stance would be good for corporate profits.

The difference this time is that the uncertainty seems set to linger. It may take days for a winner of the White House to emerge, and professional investors say they're bracing for sharp market swings in the meantime. Trump said early Wednesday that he'd take the election to the Supreme Court, though it's unclear exactly what he means by that as states continue to tally all their votes.

A contested election was a worst-case scenario for markets because it would only prolong the uncertainty that's been keeping investors on edge.

A drawn-out court battle "just adds more and more uncertainty, and the last thing the market needs is that," said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Financial.

The large number of Americans who voted early means the result of this presidential election might not be known for days.

In the end, though, many fund managers suggest investors hold steady through the tumult in large part because one person can't singlehandedly move the economy and stocks tend to rise regardless of which party controls the White House. What happens with the coronavirus pandemic will have a much greater effect on markets than this election's results, many fund managers say.

Uber and Lyft both soared more than 11% after the ride-hailing companies won a vote in California allowing them to continue classifying their drivers as contractors instead of employees and preserve their business models.

In Europe, Germany's DAX recovered from early losses to gain 1.7%. The CAC 40 in Paris rose 2.3%, and the FTSE 100 in London climbed 1.6%.

Besides the election's impact on Trump's enthusiasm for tariffs, European investors also watching for what it will do to the U.S. dollar's value. By making additional stimulus less likely, a divided U.S. government could force the Federal Reserve to do even more on its own to support the economy, which could send the dollar lower against the euro and other currencies.

The Fed will announce its latest decision on interest-rate policy on Thursday. Its moves earlier this year to slash interest rates to record lows and prop up bond markets have helped Wall Street soar since March.

In Asia, Tokyo's Nikkei 225 rose 1.7%, South Korea's Kospi rose 0.6%, Hong Kong's Hang Seng declined 0.2% and stocks in Shanghai added 0.2%.

-AP Business Writers Damian J. Troise, Elaine Kurtenbach and Danica Kirka contributed.
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