An unprecedented blank check from the Federal Reserve and the prospect of a $1.8 trillion stimulus package from Congress failed to slow a two-week stock purge as investors grasped for signs that progress is being made against the coronavirus.
The Dow Jones industrial average and the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index have plumbed lows not seen in years. The blue chips shed close to 600 points, or 3 percent, to push the index more than 37 percent off the all-time high set on Feb. 12. It’s on pace for its worst month since the Great Depression.
The S&P 500 sank 3 percent to close at 2,237. The broader index is on track for its worst month since 1938. The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index was close to flat on the day, ending at 6,860, a drop of 0.27 percent.
The medical picture is getting worse, as New York state sees an exponential increase in reported coronavirus infections and as deaths mount around the globe. Investors are seeking signs — in some form — that the disease is cresting.
“The last two weeks, the market has been looking for some sign the virus is slowing, or that we have effective treatments for those infected, or that there may be a vaccine,” said Randy Frederick, vice president of trading and derivatives at the Schwab Center for Financial Research. “This is a medical issue and we are trying to solve it with financial measures. If we are looking for a rebound, the market needs some positive health news, and they don’t see it yet.”
Stocks saw a short-lived surge during futures trading after the Fed said it would purchase Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities “in the amounts needed to support smooth market functioning,” showing the central bank is willing to go far beyond the $700 billion in new purchases announced last week.
But some analysts say U.S. markets could slide as much 50 percent before the sell-off exhausts itself.
“The volatility tells me that we have not hit the bottom,” said Howard Silverblatt of S&P Dow Jones Indices. “We have some way to go.”
There were some pockets of promise. Aerospace giant Boeing, whose share price has declined about 75 percent in the past year, bounced 11 percent on an endorsement from Goldman Sachs. Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean saw percentage increases in the double digits. Delta Air Lines, which announced it was suspending its dividend, rose 4 percent. It is the sixth S&P company to cut its dividend this year, Silverblatt said.
Energy stocks continue to be pummeled. The sector is down 50 percent this year as companies struggle to make money with oil prices in the $25 per barrel range. That is about half the price of what most petroleum companies need to make a profit.
Stocks have continued to swing wildly, sometimes in the span of a few minutes, as the bad news mounts. Though both Democrats and Republicans have pledged to continue talking to get the enormous stimulus bill moving forward, investors worry that the economy is suffering by the minute — perhaps irreparably — as the country remains shut down.
“I’m not surprised to see a dramatic reaction by markets,” said Kristina Hooper, chief global market strategist at Invesco. “And now the Fed has announced a slew of programs to help support markets and the economy, once again shouldering the burden in the face of a dysfunctional Congress — as it did during the global financial crisis. If history isn’t repeating itself, it sure is rhyming.”
The legislation would steer payments of $1,200 to most adults and include $500 for each child. It would also allocate $350 billion to small businesses to address layoffs, and send billions more to hospitals and the unemployment insurance system. The measure also would create a $500 billion program for businesses, states and localities.
“We’ve known that the magnitude of help needed has been massive and growing for days now,” wrote Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate. “The Federal Reserve continues to do all it can to keep markets operating. Now, the spotlight is on elected leaders to do their jobs as well.”
On Friday, the Dow capped an especially turbulent week by shaving off more than 900 points, erasing all Trump-era gains. All three indexes are well into a bear market — which marks at least a 20 percent reversal from their highs. Oil prices have plummeted as demand has evaporated and governments around the world urge people to stay home to contain the spread of coronavirus.
Ed Yardeni, president of Yardeni Research, said in his morning note that the United States must slow the spread of the virus immediately, outlining three possible economic scenarios: “the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
Any “good” prospect — a growth recession with a stock market correction — was wishful thinking, Yardeni wrote.
“That leaves only the Bad and the Ugly for now,” he wrote. “The former is underway, with the global economy falling into a severe recession, the stock market in a bear market … and the Fed having lowered the federal funds rate to zero and restarted credit easing programs. The only question now is, how bad will Bad be?”
Global markets entered the week on equally shaky footing. Stocks flashed red across Europe, with Britain’s FTSE 100 plunging 3.8 percent, Germany’s DAX losing 2.1 percent and the benchmark Stoxx obliterating 4.3 percent. In Asia, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng sank nearly 4.9 percent, and the Shanghai composite dropped 3.1 percent.
Japan’s Nikkei popped 2 percent after SoftBank — which is headquartered in Tokyo and controls a $100 billion tech investment fund — announced it would sell $41 billion in assets and buy its own dropping shares. Stocks of tech companies, many of which employ low-wage gig workers, have fallen precipitously as the pandemic forces consumers to travel and commute less.
Investors insist equities will remain more volatile than usual until some good news emerges on the coronavirus that signals the spread of the disease has some border.
“Today’s sell-off is a combination of uncertainty in both the health side of the virus and the financial system,” said Sarat Sethi of Douglas C. Lane & Associates. “Markets hate uncertainty. The uncertainty created by Congress not being able to provide a stimulus, and by investors continuing to look for a glimmer of hope on slowing the virus, are causing additional pressure on stocks like we have seen the last couple of weeks.”