Volatility Spikes; First Monthly S&P 500 Loss Since October

Despite hitting five new record highs during January, the S&P 500 posted an overall loss for the month.

February begins with a stack of important economic scorecards. Among them are the last of the fourth-quarter corporate earnings reports, last week’s assessment of the 2020 gross domestic product (GDP), unemployment figures, consumer spending, as well as all the other regular reports that give us a snapshot of our recent economic history.

Investors also saw the first glimpses – and first tangible evidence – of the new administration’s priorities. And adding to the list is a new scorecard – a tally of the first full month of COVID-19 vaccinations.

It’s a new year, but the same drivers of volatility remain: COVID-19, vaccine progress and politics. The S&P 500 had been up approximately 2.5% before a pullback on the last day of the month sent it lower for January – the first negative month since October. The broad equity markets declined in January despite the S&P 500 setting five new record highs during the month, and volatility “woke up,” to some degree on short-sell activity, ending the month at 32.4, up approximately 37% since the end of December. Four out of the 11 S&P 500 sectors were positive for the month, including some (real estate, energy) that had been lagging due to COVID-19 lockdowns.

The pace of the economic recovery slowed in the final quarter of 2020, based on a smaller quarterly rise in GDP than we saw in the third quarter, ending the year 2.5% lower than the fourth quarter of 2019. Consumer spending growth was also up, but limited, constrained by the pandemic. Raymond James Chief Economist Scott Brown said he expects a sharp rebound in the latter part of the year as the distribution of vaccines continues.