Wall Street plunges as coronavirus spread sends investors fleeing

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Wall Street’s three major stock indexes fell 3% on Tuesday as the coronavirus spread further around the world and investors clamored for safety a day after the S&P 500’s .SPX and the Dow Industrials’ .DJI biggest daily declines in two years.

After U.S. stocks started the session with an attempt to rebound, they were quickly rebuffed and losses deepened as the day wore on and U.S. 10-year Treasury yields hit a record low on strong demand for safer bets.

Strategists struggled to estimate the economic impact of the virus as it spread to Spain and dozens of countries from South Korea to Italy accelerated emergency measures.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Americans should prepare for possible community spread of coronavirus. Earlier in the day, Iran’s virus death toll rose to 16, the highest outside China.

It did not help matters when the Associated Press reported here that a senior member of the International Olympic Committee said organizers are more likely to cancel the 2020 Olympics than to postpone or move it if the coronavirus makes it too dangerous to hold in Tokyo.

As a result the S&P was on track for its biggest 2-day percentage drop since August 2015. Fears of a pandemic had knocked off more than 3% on Monday and erasing the S&P 500 and the Dow’s gains for the year-to-date.

“People are pulled to the sidelines and there’s a re-evaluation of risks. They’re taking a wait and see approach because nobody knows how to accurately estimate the potential near term economic impact of coronavirus,” said Carol Schleif, Deputy Chief Investment Officer, Abbot Downing in Minneapolis. “Markets abhor a vacuum. They hate not knowing so people are waiting to see, to give it a few days to settle out.”

At 2:36 p.m. ET, the Dow Jones Industrial Average .DJI was down 886.23 points, or 3.17%, to 27,074.57, the S&P 500 .SPX lost 97.75 points, or 3.03%, to 3,128.14 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC dropped 254.49 points, or 2.76%, to 8,966.79.

The NYSE Arca Airline index was down almost 5% on track for its biggest four-day decline since October 2011. Travel stocks such as Tripadvisor (TRIP.O), down 5.7%, and Norweigian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH.K), down 6.9%.

“When people react to it because they don’t travel or go to restaurants or go shopping, that’ll have an immediate impact on the economy. It depends how long it goes and how wide the spread,” said Randy Frederick, vice president of trading and derivatives for Charles Schwab in Austin, Texas.

The Cboe Volatility Index , known as Wall Street’s fear gauge, went above 30, for the first time since December 2018.

Only ten S&P stocks were in positive territory while all of the S&P’s 11 industry sectors were declining on Tuesday though defensive industries such as consumer staples .SPLRCS, down 1.7%, fell the least while energy .SPNY was the biggest loser with a more than 4% dip as oil prices tumbles.

Last week, positive fourth-quarter corporate earnings and hopes of limited damage from the virus outbreak had pushed Wall Street to record highs.

Some investors had been betting that central banks like the U.S. Federal Reserve would counter economic weakness resulting from the virus with support such as interest rate cuts. But worries about supply chain disruption curbed this confidence.

“The markets are also coming around to this idea that when it’s a problem with the supply side, the central banks are not equipped to deal with these kind of events,” said Seema Shah, chief investment strategist at Principal Global Investors in London.

Department store operator Macy’s Inc (M.N) fell 4% despite reporting a smaller-than-expected drop in quarterly same-store sales.

Mastercard Inc (MA.N) shares fell 7%, putting it among the S&P’s biggest percentage decliners. Earlier it announced Chief Executive Ajay Banga would step down at the start of the next year and be replaced by products head Michael Miebach.

HP Inc (HPQ.N) pared earlier gains but was still up 4%, providing one of the biggest boosts to the S&P, after saying it would step up efforts to slash costs and buy back stock, as it sought investor support to defend against a $35 billion takeover offer from U.S. printer maker Xerox Holdings Corp (XRX.N).

Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a 7.55-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 6.46-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

The S&P 500 posted 4 new 52-week highs and 41 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 25 new highs and 195 new lows.

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