U.S. stock markets slid lower today after housing starts fell and the Fed released meeting minutes that showed divided support for future quantitative easing. Housing starts fell 8.5% in January to a seasonally adjusted rate of 890,000, but this was still 24% higher than a year ago -- another sign the economy is improving. The Fed minutes, released at midday, showed that there will be a fierce debate in March over the future of quantitative easing. A number of proposals were discussed at the last meeting in January, and the debate will probably unnerve some investors who are looking for certainty. All of this has the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) down 0.67% and the S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) falling 1% with 45 minutes left in the trading session.
The uncertainty at the Fed had bank stocks spiraling in late trading. Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) is down 3.2%, and JP Morgan (NYSE:JPM) has fallen 1.9%. Banks rely on certainty to set interest rates and other strategies, so the Fed's uncertainty makes investors uneasy. I don't see the Fed changing policy rapidly, and it has sent plenty of signals to the market about what's coming next, so any dips in bank stocks should be temporary.
The other big move happening today is the drop in oil and gold. The drop in oil of 1.9% may look like bad news for the oil business, but what actually pressured prices is a trading phenomenon: A big block of trades hit the market today, and there's speculation that a commodity fund is liquidating and may be in serious trouble. These kinds of events happen periodically when a fund makes a big bet on a commodity and the market moves the opposite way, forcing liquidation. The price should come back up a little over the next few days as the big orders end and the market settles down. That's why ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) has bucked today's downward trend and stayed near breakeven.
Gold's drop of 2.6% has been rapid today, particularly after the Fed minutes were released. If the Fed slows or stops quantitative easing, one of the biggest drivers of the price of gold will disappear. Gold bugs think the Fed will never stop printing money, and if it does then the shiny metal will be worth a lot less.