Sat | Mar 28, 2020

Dow still in retreat, oil falls below US$20

Published:Sunday | March 22, 2020 | 12:33 AM

A few people walk on Wall Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange, Wednesday, March 18, 2020 in New York.
A few people walk on Wall Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange, Wednesday, March 18, 2020 in New York.

Wall Street ended the week the same way it began: in full retreat from the coronavirus.

Stocks fell sharply and the price of oil sank on Friday as federal and state governments moved to shut down bigger and bigger swathes of the nation’s economy in the hope of limiting the spread of the outbreak.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average slid more than 900 points, ending the week with a 17.3 per cent loss. The index has declined in four of the last five weeks.

The latest sell-off wiped out the gains from a day earlier and capped the market’s worst week since the financial crisis of 2008.

Investors are worried that the coronavirus will plunge the United States and other major economies into deep recessions. Steps to contain the spread of the outbreak are causing massive disruptions and layoffs. Optimism that emergency actions by central banks and governments to ease the economic damage has waned as investors wait for the Trump administration to deliver on legislation that will pump billions of dollars into hurting households and industries.

“The coronavirus is shutting the economy down,” said Lindsey Bell, chief investment strategist at Ally Invest. At the same time, oil prices are being pulled lower by increased supplies at a time when demand is declining.

“This is kind of a double-whammy for the economy,” she said.

Friday’s selling accelerated after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered that most workers stay home. The declaration came a day after California announced similar measures. The move leaves restaurants, retailers and other businesses dependent on consumer traffic in economic limbo as they’re forced to close doors and furlough or lay off workers.

The measures also mean less demand for oil. US crude dropped about 21 per cent and moved below US$20 a barrel for first time since February 2002. Prices later settled at US$22.43 a barrel on Friday. Brent crude oil, the international standard, settled at US$26.98 a barrel.

Investors say they need to see the number of new infections stop accelerating for the market’s volatile skid to ease.


“We just don’t know what the next two weeks will bring,” said Paul Christopher, global market strategist at the Wells Fargo Investment Institute. “Are we going to follow the same infection curve as other countries and the number infections will drastically accelerate? That’s when the storm is going to come.”

More than 10,000 people have died. There are more than 246,000 cases worldwide, including nearly 85,000 people who have recovered.

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and those with mild illness recover in about two weeks. Severe illness including pneumonia can occur, especially in the elderly and people with existing health problems, and recovery could take six weeks in such cases.

The Dow fell 913.21 points, or 4.5 per cent, to 19,173.98. The S&P 500, the benchmark for many index funds held in retirement accounts and the measure preferred by professional investors, fell 4.3 per cent after being up 1.8 per cent earlier. The index is down 31.9 per cent since reaching a record high a month ago.

Investors sought safety in US government bonds, driving their yields broadly lower. The 10-year Treasury yield, which influences interest rates on mortgages and other consumer loans, slid to 0.88 per cent from 1.12 per cent late Thursday. At least that’s normal market behaviour. Earlier in the week investors were selling stocks and bonds at the same time in a desperate rush to raise cash.

Oil has been plunging recent weeks as investors anticipate a sharp drop in demand for energy as manufacturing, travel and commerce grind nearly to a halt. It’s down from US$45 a barrel earlier this month, partly driven by a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia.

European and Asian markets closed broadly higher.

Even with the US market’s broad slide, airlines, hotels and cruise line operators climbed as the US Congress worked on the economic stimulus bill that would include billions to bail out those industries. United Airlines surged 15.1 per cent and MGM Resorts International jumped 18.3 per cent. Carnival rose 20 per cent. Despite the big gains, the stocks are still down sharply for the year.

In just its latest move to backstop the markets, the US Federal Reserve said on Friday it would seek to hold down spiking interest rates in the state and municipal bond market by supporting banks’ purchase of the bonds.

Investors are jumpy due to uncertainty about the size and duration of the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and the spreading wave of business shutdowns meant to help contain it.

Markets are likely in for more turbulence next week as investors get a better look at the economic fallout from businesses closures and layoffs. Goldman Sachs Group analysts project that this week’s US unemployment aid applications increased more than two million, a record.

“We are going to start to see really scary economic numbers,” said Lindsey Bell, chief investment strategist at Ally Invest.