- Equity investors trod warily Wednesday as they weighed hopes for a long-term recovery.
- With new, more transmissible versions of the coronavirus spreading rapidly through populations, governments are being forced to impose strict containment measures.
- There is concern that the vaccine will be less effective against new strains of the virus - though manufacturers have moved to reassure the public that they will not be.
Equity investors trod warily Wednesday as they weighed hopes for a long-term recovery against immediate worries over surging virus infections and mutations - and slow vaccine rollouts.
Signs that US President Joe Biden's much-vaunted stimulus could face a tough ride through Congress also tempered optimism, while there was increasing talk of a market correction following a recent global rally.
With new, more transmissible versions of the coronavirus spreading rapidly through populations, governments are being forced to impose strict containment measures and their efforts to administer jabs are hampered by distribution problems.
Biden said Tuesday that getting people vaccinated was "a war-time undertaking" but added that an additional 200 million doses had been ordered and that authorities would have enough for virtually the entire population by autumn.
Still, there is concern that the drugs will be less effective against new strains of the virus - though manufacturers have moved to reassure the public that they will not be.
Observers said that while the outlook was positive - the International Monetary Fund has lifted its 2021 global growth forecasts - the first few months of the year could be painful.
"Markets may continue to struggle for near term direction as Covid concerns continue to cast a pall over the proceedings, creating an unpleasant situation for both risk and healthcare concerns," said Axi strategist Stephen Innes.
"With the virus spreading like wildfire in parts of the world, it is now possible that the first quarter will be a lost quarter and part of the second quarter also."
He said worries about the virus mutations "will continue to linger over markets like a dark cloud until vaccine distributions get ironed out and a definitive drop in contagion levels can thoroughly support the vaccine efficacy results".
Wall Street's three main indexes ended in the red and Asia struggled to rebound from Tuesday's sell-off.
Hong Kong fell again after being battered Tuesday by the Chinese central bank's decision to drain billions of dollars out of the financial system as it looked to prevent an asset bubble developing.
Sydney, Seoul, Mumbai, Manila, Bangkok and Jakarta also fell but Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, Taipei and Wellington rose.
London, Paris and Frankfurt all fell at the open of business.
Eyes are on Washington as lawmakers prepare to discuss Biden's $1.9 trillion economic rescue package, though there are concerns that the final figure could be far lower as Republicans and some Democrats raise concerns about its size and other provisions, including a higher minimum wage.
Senate Leader Chuck Schumer has suggested the final agreement might not come until mid-March, while Donald Trump's impeachment trial could also jam up the timetable.
Talk of correction
The Federal Reserve's latest board meeting takes place later Monday and while it is not expected to see any major announcements, traders will be keen to find out about any new plans for monetary policy.
"A strong directional move by markets is nigh on a certainty, its direction depending on the wording of the statement, and the comments made by (Fed boss) Jerome Powell afterwards," said OANDA's Jeffrey Halley.
"With the inflationistas circling, Mr Powell and the (policy board) will need to drive home their lower-for-longer message, lest a mini taper-tantrum erupt. That won't be good for equities, precious metals or emerging markets, but should be positive for the US dollar."
With markets at multi-year highs, there is also growing concern that they are set for a sizeable drop.
But Tai Hui, of JP Morgan Asset Management, remained upbeat.
"We remain constructive on global equities in 2021," he said in a commentary. "In the near term, a lot of Christmas presents have already been unwrapped by investors - the new Biden administration brings reduced tail risks of trade policies aiming at China and proactive fiscal actions.
"We also have Covid vaccine breakthroughs and distribution as well as commitment by global central banks to keep monetary policy loose. Tactical investors digesting this good news and taking profit could well lead to a period of consolidation, or even correction."
But he pointed out that "corrections are an integral part of any equity market", adding that while the S&P 500 had seen an average intra-year drop of 13.8% since the 1980s it had ended 30 out of the past 40 years on a positive note.