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Stock futures are flat amid positive virus treatment news, U.S. presidential debate

A pedestrian wearing a face mask looks at a smartphone while passing in front of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, on Monday, July 20, 2020.

Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

U.S. stock futures traded flat on Tuesday night as traders digested positive data regarding a potential coronavirus treatment from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals as well as the first U.S. presidential debate. 

Dow Jones Industrial Average futures were down 7 points, or 0.03%, after jumping more than 150 points earlier. S&P 500 and Nasdaq 100 futures were also little changed.

Futures rose slightly during the debate, but quickly gave up most of that ground once the debate was over. It wasn’t clear whether the gyrations were related to the contentious comments being traded back and forth by the candidates. Traders are hoping that the start of the debate process will lead to a clear winner on Election Day and not a drawn-out electoral process that could hit the market.

“Most people come away from it thinking it was an ugly experience,” said Marc Chandler, chief market strategist at Bannockburn Global Forex. “I don’t think it changed peoples’ minds really.”

Regeneron said after the close Tuesday its REGN-COV2 drug reduced viral levels and improved symptoms in non-hospitalized coronavirus patients. “The greatest treatment benefit was in patients who had not mounted their own effective immune response, suggesting that REGN-COV2 could provide a therapeutic substitute for the naturally-occurring immune response,” Regeneron Chief Scientific Officer George D. Yancopoulos said in a statement.

President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden sparred on a number of issues, including their qualifications to manage the U.S. economy, the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court as well as the U.S.’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden came into the debate with an average lead of 6.1 percentage points in recent polls, according to RealClearPolitics. The former vice president was also the favorite to win the election in betting markets heading into the debate. Those odds barely budged during the debate. 

Many market strategists have cited uncertainty around the election as a key headwind for the market before year-end with each outcome bringing its own risks and benefits. Some investors have raised concerns about a potential Biden win as they fear it could lead to higher corporate taxes and regulations. But at the same time, it could ease concerns about the trade war and lack of stimulus to bolster the economy in the wake of the coronavirus.

Investors are also worried that after the debates the race could become even closer, leaving the potential for a drawn-out election process where the Nov. 3 result is too close to call and neither candidate concedes. That uncertainty could particularly weigh on the market.

“As far as the ballots are concerned, it’s a disaster,” Trump said on Tuesday night. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.”

“I think we’re going to do well because people are really happy with the job we’ve done. But we might not know for months because these ballots are going to be all over” the place,” he added. 

The major averages snapped a three-day winning streak earlier in the day, with the Dow falling more than 100 points, or 0.5%. The S&P 500 also closed 0.5% lower and the Nasdaq Composite slid 0.3%. Those losses came amid concerns over a virus resurgence. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city’s daily positive rate of coronavirus tests is back above 3% for the first time in months.

“Coronavirus infection rates are rising in Europe and the United States as children return to school,” Terry Sandven, chief equity strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management, wrote in a note. “We expect the United States to continue its modest pace of economic improvement, though virus growth and a softer labor market are threats.”

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