Stocks sink, bonds soar on fears virus will stunt economy

Stocks slumped again on Wall Street Tuesday, piling on losses a day after the market’s biggest drop in two years as fears spread that the growing virus outbreak will put the brakes on the global economy.

Nervous investors snapped up low-risk U.S. government bonds, sending the yield on the 10-year Treasury note to a record low.

Meanwhile more companies warned that the outbreak will hurt their finances, including Mastercard and United Airlines. Travel-related stocks took another drubbing, bringing the two-day loss for American Airlines to 16%.

New cases are being reported in Europe and the Middle East, far outside the epicenter of China. The latest cases have raised fears that the virus could spread further.

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.”

The decline on Monday sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average more than 1,000 points lower and wiped out its gains for the year. The S&P 500 is now down6.5% from its record high set last Wednesday.

Technology stocks, which rely heavily on China for both sales and supply chains, once again led the decline. Apple dropped 1.4% and chipmaker Nvidia fell 4.2%.

Bond prices continued rising. The yield on the 10-year Treasury fell to 1.32%,a record low, down from 1.37% late Monday.

The lower bond yields weighed on banks. JPMorgan Chase slid 2.7% and Bank of America fell 3.3%.

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 pushed money into safe-play stocks.

KEEPING SCORE: The S&P 500 index fell 2% as of 1:47 a.m. Eastern time. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 583 points, or 2.1%, to 27,379. The Nasdaq fell 1.7%. The Russell 200 index of smaller company stocks fell 2.8%.

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

VIRUS UPDATE: 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 fell 5.2% after withdrawing its financial forecasts for the year because of the impact on demand for air travel. Mastercard dropped 5.2% 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.

NOT SO HOT STREAK: 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.

STOCK BOOSTER: Moderna surged 19.1% after the company sent its potential virus vaccine to government researchers for additional testing. The biotechnology company is one several drug developers racing to develop vaccine.

NAILED IT: Home Depot rose0.8% after the home-improvement retailer’s fourth-quarter financial results connected with Wall Street. The company handily beat profit expectations and a reported a surprisingly good jump for a key sales measure. It gave investors a strong profit forecast for 2020 and raised its dividend.

GOOD KARMA: Intuit rose 0.4% after the maker of TurboTax software said it will pay $7.1 billion for consumer finance company Credit Karma. The deal will give one of the most well-known makers of personal finance software a website operator that focuses on helping people monitor their credit and find loans or credit cards.

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