Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 fell nearly 1.1% in morning trading to 28,321.89. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 slipped 1.9% to 6,651.90. South Korea's Kospi sank 0.8% to 3,097.38. Hong Kong's Hang Seng dropped 1.1% to 28,975.69, while the Shanghai Composite shed 0.8% to 3,544.59.
The slow majority held by Democrats in the Senate has raised doubts over how soon the economy will get an infusion of fresh support after President Joe Biden proposed a $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package. The plan might also be scaled back.
“Investors will likely focus on the pace of vaccinations around the globe while also keeping an eye on the progress of President Biden’s fiscal rescue plan that may be facing some roadblocks in the U.S. Senate,” Prakash Sakpal and Nicholas Mapa, senior economists at ING, said in a report.
Vaccine rollouts have not progressed in Asia as quickly as they have in the West, and worries are growing about a tug-of-war for the products from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. Aside from China, which has its own vaccine, innoculations have not started on a mass scale in Asia, although approvals have either been granted or are on their way in most places, including Australia and Japan.
Outbreaks persist and have grown in some places such as Japan, where a third wave is claiming more lives at a much faster pace than last year, at more than 5,000 so far. Daily deaths had been mostly in single-digit figures until recently, but are now surpassing 100 people a day.
Adding to caution, the Federal Reserve said Wednesday it would keep its low interest rate policies in place, but it also released a sobering assessment of the gradual recovery ahead.
On Wall Street, a sell-off in technology companies sent shares tumbling in a reversal from the market's recent moves to record highs.
The S&P 500 fell 2.6% to 3,750.77. The Dow lost 2%, to 30,303.17. The Nasdaq slid 2.6%, to 13,270.60. The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies gave up 1.9%, to 2,108.70.
Facebook, Netflix and Google's parent company Alphabet led the pullback, which started early in the day as investors sized up the latest batch of company earnings reports. The market's skid accelerated toward the end of the day.
Traders were also focused on the eye-popping surge in GameStop, a money-losing video game seller that has become the focus of a battle between small investors bidding it higher and big hedge funds betting it will fall.
Some analysts said the selling was at least partly a reaction to the outsized moves in GameStop, AMC Entertainment and select other previously beaten-down stocks that have notched massive gains in recent days after gaining favor with an online community of individual investors.
The volatile trading caught the attention of officials in the highest levels of government. The White House said the Biden administration, including the Treasury Department, are monitoring the situation. The Securities and Exchange Commission said it was keeping an eye on the stock and options markets. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell was asked about the GameStop trading frenzy at a news conference but declined to comment about it.
Investors are also focusing on company earnings. More than 100 companies in the S&P 500 are scheduled to tell investors this week how they fared during the last three months of 2020. As a whole, analysts expect S&P 500 companies to say their fourth-quarter profit fell 5% from a year earlier. That’s a milder drop than the 9.4% they were forecasting earlier this month, according to FactSet.
Boeing dropped 4% after the aircraft manufacturer posted its largest annual loss in the company's history, mostly due to the grounding of Boeing's 737-MAX fleet.
Markets had been meandering near record highs since last week as investors weighed solid corporate earnings results against renewed worries that troubles with COVID-19 vaccine rollouts and the spread of new variants of coronavirus might delay a recovery from the pandemic.
“The real economy isn't reflective of what's happening in financial markets and there really is a disconnect there,” said Charlie Ripley, senior investment strategist for Allianz Investment Management.
In energy trading, benchmark U.S. crude lost 14 cents to $52.71 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It picked up 24 cents to $52.85 per barrel overnight. Brent crude, the international standard, fell 20 cents to $55.61 a barrel.
In currency trading, the U.S. dollar edged up to 104.26 Japanese yen from 104.12 yen. The euro cost $1.2104, inching down from $1.2112.
AP Business Writers Damian J. Troise, Ken Sweet and Alex Veiga contributed.