By Caitlin Ostroff, Anna Isaac and Sam Goldfarb
This week's rally in U.S. government bonds picked up new momentum Friday, reflecting investors' intense demand for safer assets and escalating bets that the Federal Reserve will move quickly and aggressively to cut interest rates.
The yield on the 10-year note settled at 1.127%, according to Tradeweb, breaking the previous record-low close of 1.296% set a day earlier.
Falling even more sharply, the yield on the two-year note logged its largest one-day decline since Oct. 2008 to finish at 0.878%, compared with 1.099% Thursday.
Yields fall when bond prices rise.
Analysts said the steep decline of the two-year yield, which is particularly sensitive to changes in monetary policy, reflected growing confidence among traders that the Fed will cut interest rates to stem market turmoil caused by the coronavirus.
Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said in a statement Friday afternoon that the "coronavirus poses evolving risks to economic activity" and that the central bank would "act as appropriate to support the economy."
Just a week ago, federal-funds futures, which traders use to bet on the path of central-bank policy, showed an 89% chance that the Fed would keep interest rates unchanged at its March 17-18 meeting, according to CME Group data. Shortly after Mr. Powell's statement, traders saw a 4% chance of a 0.25 percentage-point cut and a 96% chance of a 0.5 percentage-point cut.
Earlier in the day, some investors had speculated that the Fed could even cut rates before its next meeting.
Though the next meeting is just weeks away, "I'm not sure they can go that long," said Bill Zox, chief investment officer of fixed income at Diamond Hill Capital Management.
Doug Ramsey, chief investment officer at the Leuthold Group, also said the Fed will likely cut interest rates by 0.25 percentage point before the March meeting because of its sensitivity to market sentiment.
Some of the decline in Treasury yields was a response to uncertainty abroad in Europe and Asia, where the virus has had a more direct impact -- disrupting travel and commerce. European government bond yields dipped across the board Friday, with the 10-year German bund falling as low as minus 0.624% -- below the short-term interest rates set by the European Central Bank of minus 0.5%.
Investors unwilling to hold negative-yielding European debt often move into relatively higher-yielding U.S. bonds, causing yields to fall there as well.
The rally has dropped longer-term yields below shorter-term ones, a phenomenon known as an inverted yield curve that is often seen as a harbinger for a coming recession.
Some economists have argued, however, that U.S. Treasurys don't offer as clear a signal of recessions as in past years due to more globalized markets and post-2008 financial-crisis monetary-policy measures such as quantitative easing, in which central banks have bought government bonds.
"For a recession in the U.S. you would need to see consumer confidence fall lower," said Vivek Bommi, senior portfolio manager, noninvestment-grade credit at Neuberger Berman in London. "You would need to derail the consumer, and that's the big question that everyone's grappling with."
The decline in U.S. Treasury yields had been more pronounced than in European government bonds. This was because the Fed has greater headroom to cut interest rates relative to the European Central Bank where rates are already negative.
"The Fed is capable of doing much more -- it has more room away from the lower bound of monetary policy," Mr. Jones said.
The benchmark 10-year German bund is still more than 0.1 percentage point from its all-time low, touched last year, notes Eric Brard, global head of fixed income at Amundi Asset Management in Paris.
"From that perspective there is room for further decline. We need to assess how long and deep and strong the shock might be going forward," he said.
In a sign of the disquiet the coronavirus is causing in financial markets, Italian and Greek yields rose, as investors feared the impact on two of Europe's weakest economies. The yield on the Greek 10-year bond rose to 1.322% Friday after hitting a record closing low of 0.950% two weeks ago. Expectations of a long-awaited economic rebound in Greece have now been put on hold because of the virus outbreak.
"Let's just say the hunt for yield is currently on pause. People are moving toward safety. It's not something we haven't seen before," said Dimitris Dalipis, head of fixed income at Alpha Trust Investments, based in Athens. "It's like a textbook correction."
--Sebastian Pellejero contributed to this article.
Write to Caitlin Ostroff at firstname.lastname@example.org, Anna Isaac at email@example.com and Sam Goldfarb at firstname.lastname@example.org