Wall St. eases, led by tech decline on mounting fears coronavirus could spread

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. stocks fell on Thursday, led by declines in technology heavyweights, after reports of new coronavirus cases in China and other countries intensified fears over its spread and impact on the global economy.

Investors were unnerved by a sharp late-morning drop that took the S&P 500 briefly down more than 1% on the day, with some traders attributing the move to a Global Times report that a central Beijing hospital had reported 36 new cases. This raised worries about a potential increase in infections in the Chinese capital.

Investors were already skittish after Japan reported two new deaths and South Korea reported a rise in new infections. Research suggested the virus was spreading more quickly than previously thought.

“The overlying question is the uncertainty over the coronavirus and whether it’s going to spread further and impact global economic activity before things stabilize and ultimately get better,” said Michael Sheldon, executive director and CIO at RDM Financial Group at Hightower in Westport, Connecticut.

He said it appeared investors were taking profits in some high-flying technology names and buying shares of other groups, including small caps. The Russell 2000 index ended up 0.2% on the day.

The S&P 500 technology index lost 1% on the day. The index has led gains in the S&P 500 so far this year and is still up more than 10% since Dec. 31. Shares of Microsoft Corp, Apple Inc and Amazon.com Inc fell and were among the biggest drag on the S&P 500 on Thursday.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 128.05 points, or 0.44%, to 29,219.98, the S&P 500 lost 12.92 points, or 0.38%, to 3,373.23 and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 66.22 points, or 0.67%, to 9,750.97.

Recent policy easing by China, a largely better-than-expected fourth-quarter earnings season and hopes that the economic jolt from the coronavirus will be short-lived have pushed Wall Street’s main indexes to new highs in recent weeks.

“In my opinion, what is happening is the market got well ahead of itself. The coronavirus thing is not over by any stretch,” said Ken Polcari, senior market strategist at SlateStone Wealth LLC in Jupiter, Florida.

E*Trade jumped 21.8% after Morgan Stanley offered to buy it in a $13 billion stock deal, the biggest acquisition by a Wall Street bank since the financial crisis.

In other corporate news, ViacomCBS Inc slumped 17.9% as its earnings fell short of revenue and profit expectations in its first quarterly earnings results since closing its merger.

The S&P 500 posted 45 new 52-week highs and 4 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 138 new highs and 56 new lows.

Volume on U.S. exchanges was 8.36 billion shares, compared with the 7.63 billion average for the full session over the last 20 trading days.

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