Stocks sink, bonds soar on fears virus will stunt economy

Business

A specialist rests his head in his hand as he works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. U.S. stocks fell in midday trading Tuesday, a day after the market’s biggest drop in two years, as traders worry that the spreading coronavirus will threaten global economic growth. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Stocks slumped and bond prices soared for the second day in a row as fears spread that the widening virus outbreak will put the brakes on the global economy.

The losses came a day after the market’s biggest drop in two years. Investors plowed money into bonds, sending the yield on the 10-year Treasury to a record low.

Mastercard joined a growing list of companies warning that the outbreak would hurt its finances.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 878 points, or 3.1%, to 27,081. The S&P 500 fell 97 points, or 3%, to 3,128. The Nasdaq lost 255 points, or 2.8%, to 8,965.

The latest wave of selling came as more companies, including United Airlines and Mastercard, warned that the outbreak will hurt their finances, and more cases were reported in Europe and the Middle East, far outside the epicenter in China. Meanwhile, U.S. health officials called on Americans to be prepared for the disease to spread in the United States.

“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen – and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a call with reporters.

Travel-related stocks took another drubbing, bringing the two-day loss for American Airlines to 16.8%.

The worst-case scenario for investors hasn’t changed in the last few weeks — where the virus spreads around the world and cripples supply chains and the global economy — but the probability of it happening has risen, said Yung-Yu Ma, chief investment strategist at BMO Wealth Management.

“It’s the combination of South Korea, Japan, Italy and even Iran” reporting virus cases, Ma said. “That really woke up the market, that these four places in different places around the globe can go from low concern to high concern in a matter of days and that we could potentially wake up a week from now and it could be five to 10 additional places.”

European markets also fell. The Euro Stoxx index lost 2.1%. Markets in Asia were mixed.

Monday’s sell-off sent the Dow more than 1,000 points lower and wiped out its gains for the year. The S&P 500 is now down 7.7% from its record high set last Wednesday and is also in the red for 2019.

Technology stocks, which rely heavily on China for both sales and supply chains, once again led the decline. Apple dropped 3.3% and chipmaker Nvidia fell 4.7%.

Bond prices continued rising. The yield on the 10-year Treasury fell as low as 1.31%, a record, according to TradeWeb, before recovering somewhat to 1.32% in the afternoon. That’s down from 1.37% late Monday and far below the 1.90% it traded at in early 2020.

The lower bond yields, which force interest rates lower on mortgages and other loans, weighed on banks. JPMorgan Chase slid 4.5% and Bank of America fell 5.3%.

Energy companies fell as crude oil prices headed lower. Real estate companies and utilities also declined, though they held up better than the rest of the market as investors favored safe-play stocks.

The viral outbreak that originated in China has now infected more than 80,000 people globally, with more cases being reported in Europe and the Middle East. The majority of cases and deaths remain centered in China, but the rapid spread to other parts of the world has spooked markets and raised fears that it will hurt the global economy.

United Airlines tumbled 6% after withdrawing its financial forecasts for the year because of the impact on demand for air travel. Mastercard dropped 6.6% after saying the impact on cross-border travel and business could cut into its revenue, depending on the duration and severity of the virus outbreak.

Moderna surged 31.4% after the company sent its potential virus vaccine to government researchers for additional testing. The biotechnology company is one of several drug developers racing to develop the vaccine.

The S&P 500 is on track for its first four-day losing streak since early August. One measure of fear in the market, which shows how much traders are paying to protect themselves from future swings for the S&P 500, touched its highest level since the start of 2019 when stocks were tumbling on worries about a possible recession.

The chief risk is that the stock market was already “priced to perfection,” or something close to it, before the virus worries exploded, according to Brian Nick, chief investment officer at Nuveen.

After getting the benefit of three interest-rate cuts from the Federal Reserve last year and the consummation of a “Phase 1” U.S.-China trade deal, investors were willing to pay high prices for stocks on the expectation that profits would grow in the future. The S&P 500 was recently trading at its most expensive level, relative to its expected earnings per share, since the dot-com bubble was deflating in 2002, according to FactSet.

If profit growth doesn’t ramp up this year, that makes a highly-priced stock market even more vulnerable. After a growing number of companies have cut or withdrawn their revenue and profit forecasts for the year, analysts have slashed their expectations for S&P 500 earnings growth to 7.9% for this year, down from expectations of 9.6% at the start of 2020, according to FactSet.

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