A trader works on the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., March 7, 2022.
A trader works on the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., March 7, 2022. Reuters / ANDREW KELLY

U.S. equities tumbled on Monday, with the S&P 500 on pace for its fourth straight decline and poised to confirm a bear market, as fears grow that the expected aggressive interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve would push the economy into a recession.

The benchmark index is more than 20% below its record closing high on Jan. 3, the second such intraday decline since the pandemic-led rout on Wall Street in 2020.

A drop of 20% or more from the Jan. 3 closing high would confirm the index is in a bear market, according to a commonly used definition.

All the major S&P sectors were sharply lower, with only about 20 components of the S&P 500 trading in positive territory on the day. Markets have been under pressure this year as climbing prices, including a jump in oil prices due in part to the war in Ukraine, have put the Fed on track to take strong actions to tighten its monetary policy, such as interest rate hike.

The Fed is scheduled to make its next policy announcement on Wednesday and investors will be highly focused on any clues for how aggressive the central bank intends to be in raising rates.

High-growth market heavyweights such as Apple Inc, Microsoft Corp and Amazon.com Inc were the biggest drags on the S&P 500, as the yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note hit 3.356%, its highest level since April 2011. Growth stocks are more likely to see their earnings suffer in a rising rate environment.

"The Fed could do more, that is what is actively being discussed, certainly what we are seeing in the market what is actively being discussed is do they do three-quarters of a point on Wednesday, do they talk about accelerating," said Rob Haworth, senior investment strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management in Seattle.

"How is the Federal Reserve going to get its arms around inflation and keep the economy going? - there are just not enough answers."

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 783.78 points, or 2.5%, to 30,609.01, the S&P 500 lost 132.19 points, or 3.39%, to 3,768.67 and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 467.65 points, or 4.12%, to 10,872.37.

In addition, the two-year 10-year U.S. Treasury yield curve briefly inverted for the first time since April, which many in the markets see as a reliable signal that a recession could come in the next year or two.

A hotter-than-expected inflation print on Friday prompted traders to price in a total of 175 basis point (bps) in interest rate hikes by September, expectations for a 75 basis point hike at the June meeting have jumped to nearly 30% from 3.1% a week ago, according to CME's Fedwatch Tool.

The Nasdaq Composite index, which was also on track for its fourth straight drop, confirmed it was in bear market territory on March 7 and has declined roughly 30% this year.

The CBOE Volatility index, also known as Wall Street's fear gauge, spiked to 33.47 points, its highest level since May 12. Still, many analysts view the level as subdued and not indicating investors have capitulated.

Cryptocurrency- and blockchain-related stocks, including Riot Blockchain, Marathon Digital Holdings and Coinbase Global, all plunged as bitcoin slumped more than 10% after major U.S. cryptocurrency lending company Celsius Network froze withdrawals and transfers citing "extreme" conditions.

Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a 15.63-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 6.92-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

The S&P 500 posted 1 new 52-week highs and 75 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 12 new highs and 711 new lows.