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Virus Fears Grip Markets Again; Stocks, Bond Yields Slide

The Dow Jones industrial average is displayed after the closing bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York, March 5, 2020.

Fear dominated financial markets again Thursday, and stocks fell sharply on worries about the fast-spreading virus outbreak. It was the latest shudder in Wall Street's wildest week in more than eight years.

Major U.S. indexes lost roughly 3.5%, and Treasury yields touched more record lows in their latest yo-yo move. The slide nearly wiped out the surge stocks had ridden just a day earlier, which came in part on hopes that moves by authorities around the world could cushion the economic fallout.

These swings are likely only to continue, as long as the number of new infections continues to accelerate, many analysts and professional investors say. Thursday was the fourth straight day in which the S&P 500 moved at least 2%, the longest such stretch since the summer of 2011.

The growing understanding that the spread of infections — and resulting damage to the economy — may not slow anytime soon is pulling sharply on markets. That pull has taken turns this week with the increasingly worldwide push that governments and central banks are trying to give markets through spending plans and interest rate cuts.

``It's been a roller-coaster market in recent days for equity investors, and today we appear to be on the downward leg for that ride,'' said Terry Sandven, chief equity strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management. ``What you need is time, and unfortunately that is still going to result in volatility.''

Rally in China

In China, where the number of new infections has been slowing drastically, stocks trading in Shanghai have rallied nearly 12% since hitting a bottom on February 3. Factories there are gradually reopening, and a return to a sense of normal life may even be on the horizon following swift and severe actions by the government to corral the virus.

But elsewhere in the world, the mood is darker. There are about 17 times as many new infections outside China as in it, according to the World Health Organization.

In the U.S., the virus death toll climbed to 11. California declared a statewide emergency, and Southwest Airlines warned its investors that it's seen a significant decline in demand in recent days.

The S&P 500 fell 106.18, or 3.4%, to 3,023.94. The Dow Jones industrial average slumped 969.58, or 3.6%, to 26,121.28, and the Nasdaq Composite Index lost 279.49, or 3.1%, to 8,738.60.

Losses were widespread, and energy stocks in the S&P 500 dropped to their lowest level since March 2009, when they were emerging from the financial crisis.

``The Western world is now following some of China's playbook, closing schools and declaring a state of emergency, for example, but there is a sense that this is too little, too late,`` said Chris Beauchamp, chief market analyst at IG.

FILE - A health alert for people traveling to China is shown at a security checkpoint at Denver International Airport in Denver, Colo., March 2, 2020.
FILE - A health alert for people traveling to China is shown at a security checkpoint at Denver International Airport in Denver, Colo., March 2, 2020.

Travel-related companies continued to fall sharply on worries that frightened customers won't want to confine themselves in planes or boats with others. Royal Caribbean Cruises sank 16.3%, Carnival fell 14.1% and American Airlines Group lost 13.4%.

A growing list of companies is warning investors that the virus is hitting their sales and profits, and investors are left with a lot of uncertainty about just how much economic growth will be affected.

``We could probably drive a metaphorical truck between the upside and downside cases here,'' said Jason Pride, chief investment officer for private wealth at Glenmede.

Asian stock markets started Thursday off higher, riding the wave of optimism and hope that sent the S&P 500 spurting up 4.2% on Wednesday. U.S. congressional leaders reached a deal on an $8.3 billion bill to battle the outbreak, which the Senate passed Thursday, and the Bank of Canada followed up on the Federal Reserve's surprise cut to interest rates the day before with its own.

European move

Some economists expect the European Central Bank to make some kind of move in hopes of supporting markets before its meeting on March 12.

Japan's Nikkei 225 rose 1.1%, South Korea's Kospi gained 1.3% and stocks in Shanghai jumped 2%.

But markets turned lower as trading moved to Europe. The French CAC 40 fell 1.9%, Germany's DAX lost 1.5% and the FTSE 100 in London dropped 1.6%.

Several measures of fear in the market clenched tighter.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury sank to 0.91% from 0.99% late Wednesday. It earlier touched 0.901% for the first time in history, according to Tradeweb. Gold climbed $25.00 to $1,668.00 per ounce as investors piled into investments seen as safe.

Benchmark U.S. crude lost 88 cents to settle at $45.90 per barrel. Brent crude, the international standard, fell $1.14 to $49.99 per barrel.