Markets

S&P 500 ends day 0.7% lower, Nasdaq sheds nearly 2% for worst day since March

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Wall Street set for a flat open after a strong start to May

The S&P 500 fell on Tuesday amid selling in Big Tech and other high-growth stocks, erasing the benchmark's strong start to the month.

The broad market index closed the session 0.7% lower at 4,164.66 after dropping 1.5% at its low. Pressure on some of the globe's largest technology companies sent the Nasdaq Composite down 1.9% to 13,633.50 for its worst day since March.

Apple, the largest publicly traded company in the U.S., fell 3.5%. Google-parent Alphabet lost 1.6%, Facebook shed 1.3% and electric car maker Tesla dropped 1.7%. Investors did not spare the market's chipmakers, with Nvidia and Intel losing 3.3% and 0.6%, respectively.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended the day in the green thanks to strong performance in Dow Inc and Caterpillar. The 30-stock benchmark closed 19.8 points, or 0.1%, higher to 34,133.03 after dropping more than 300 points at one point Tuesday.

Reasons for the downward pressure varied, but strategists cited a mix of concerns about rising inflation, fears the Federal Reserve may have to taper monetary stimulus earlier than telegraphed, and the potential for tax increases in the months ahead.

U.S. equities hit their lows of the day following Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen's comments that interest rates may have to rise somewhat to keep economy from overheating.

Evercore ISI strategist Dennis DeBusschere wrote that while Tuesday's modest move in rates may not be a loud siren that investors are worried about the Fed, he nonetheless believes taper fears are playing a role.

"Best we can tell supply concerns are a major issue for investors and inflation / inflation expectations are becoming a headwind," he wrote in an email. "Although Fed futures are pricing in a much faster pace of rate hikes vs what the Fed wants...that is not the story today. The story is inflation and stronger growth numbers leading to even more inflation given supply constraints and what that means for equities."

DeBusschere's supply-side concerns join those of a growing number of executives and investors who say rising input prices are starting to erode profit margins.

Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, said during his company's annual meeting over the weekend that he is seeing "very substantial inflation" and his companies are raising prices.

Other companies, such as Clorox, have said in recent earnings reports that the prices they pay for the materials used to make their products are rising and could ultimately be passed on to customers. Commodity prices, from lumber to corn to palladium, have surged in recent months.

Others have said that even blowout earnings results have been unable to quell marketplace jitters. Even accounting for Tuesday's losses, the S&P 500 is still up more than 10% so far this year.

"We have gone through a two to three week period that has seen really good news get little or no reaction in markets," wrote Art Hogan, chief market strategist at National Securities. "Investors get uneasy at new highs, and there have been 25 new highs for the S&P 500 so far this year."

"There are concerns that the roaring 20's economic explosion will take longer than just this summer as people slowly get comfortable getting out and about," he added. "Equities look expensive on a trailing basis, but not from a forward looking viewpoint."

With the market at all-time highs, investors are torn between playing the reopening with shares like retailers or continuing to bet on Big Tech, which just reported blockbuster earnings.

The move in equities followed solid gains for the Dow on Monday as investors piled into shares that would benefit the most from an economic reopening. The 30-stock benchmark rallied more than 200 points, while the S&P 500 inched up 0.3%. Retail stocks led the market advance on Monday with Gap and Macy's rallying more than 7%.

Pfizer shares rose slightly following quarterly results that beat expectations and raising its 2021 guidance. CVS Health shares jumped 4.4% after the pharmacy chain and insurance company also raised its guidance.

United States Steel popped 7.9% after Credit Suisse upgraded the stock to outperform from underperform, saying that the surge in prices for steel made it clear that the industry was in a "super cycle." 

"Investors could be getting increasingly disappointed that stocks are not doing well in the face of fantastic earnings news," Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at the Leuthold Group, told CNBC.

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— with reporting from CNBC's Jesse Pound.