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U.S. Stocks Drop on Coronavirus's Economic Impact

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02/21/2020 | 11:09am EDT

By Caitlin Ostroff and Gunjan Banerji

Stocks and Treasury yields dropped Friday and precious metals rallied on early signs that the coronavirus outbreak is curtailing economic growth.

The S&P 500 index fell 1.2% in morning trading. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 319 points, or about 1.1%. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite slipped 1.6%.

U.S. stocks are on track for declines this week, while traditionally safer assets like gold and government bonds are headed toward gains, highlighting concerns that the virus could crimp global growth.

The concurrent gains in precious metals and government bonds this year highlight the jitters that have percolated markets even as major U.S. indexes are sitting close to record highs. Typically, investors ditch haven assets like gold and government bonds as stocks crest to fresh highs. This year, they have bought risky and safe assets alike as they have navigated a murky economic outlook.

The coronavirus outbreak has sickened tens of thousands of people and led to shut down businesses in one of the biggest economies in the world.

Despite Friday's declines, the stock market has largely remained resilient in 2020 -- powered higher by shares of technology heavyweights -- even as traditionally safer bets have soared. Shares of tech companies have outperformed the S&P 500 this year, rising 8.5% versus a 3.3% increase for the broad index.

Some analysts have attributed the rush for haven assets to the viral outbreak and lackluster economic data that has trickled in. This anxiety was evident in the market for government bonds Friday, where yields dropped sharply shortly after fresh data showed that business activity fell in February.

Additionally, new data showed that sales of previously owned U.S. homes sputtered in January. Existing home sales decreased 1.3% in January compared with December.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell sharply to 1.439% in early trading Friday, from 1.524% Thursday as bond prices rose. Gold prices rose about 1.8%, continuing a rally that has sent the precious metal to seven-year peaks.

The yield on the 30-year Treasury note fell to 1.886% in early trading, according to Tradeweb, from 1.971% on Thursday.

The yield on 10-year Treasurys has traded below the three-month yield since Tuesday as investors seek longer-duration U.S. bonds as a safe investment amid coronavirus fears, said Andrey Kuznetsov, a senior credit portfolio manager at Hermes Investment Management.

"If we are in an environment when we will see a lower-than-expected growth on the back of coronavirus, this will increase demand for low-risk assets," he said.

The worries about the coronavirus come as manufacturing data has disappointed investors. Data from IHS Markit Ltd. showed that new orders received by private sector firms fell for the first time since October 2009, when data collection began. Its U.S. composite purchasing managers index fell to its lowest level since 2013.

Preliminary figures for Japan's February manufacturing activity meanwhile showed the sharpest contraction in more than seven years, Deutsche Bank said. Data on the country's services sector fell to the lowest since April 2014 as the spread of coronavirus hurt tourism, according to IHS Markit.

While German figures for manufacturing showed slight improvement, it may be still too early to capture the impact of the coronavirus, said Aila Mihr, a senior analyst at Danske Bank Research. New export orders pointing to how many German goods are being purchased from countries including China remained weak.

The figures also showed longer delivery times from suppliers to Germany. While this usually indicates more demand for goods, investors see it now as a result of the shutdown in Chinese supply chains and an indication that the coronavirus is weighing on the German economy, she said.

"In the grand scheme of things, we kind of read them as the calm before the storm," Ms. Mihr said. "We don't think we have seen the worst yet."

Investors may be underestimating the impact of the outbreak on U.S. companies' earnings as economic activity slows in China and tourism takes a hit, Goldman Sachs Group warned. More than 75,000 people have been diagnosed with coronavirus, and over 2,000 have died globally. South Korea reported its first fatality, while two patients in Iran also died and confirmed cases began to climb in Beijing.

Fed governor Lael Brainard, a top central bank official, said in a speech that interest rates will need to remain at historically low levels for a lengthy period to return inflation to the Fed's 2% inflation goal. The Federal Reserve cut interest rates three times last year, helping boost stocks and government bonds.

Investors have also been parsing individual earnings releases in recent days. Shares of Deere rose 6.9% after the tractor and construction machinery maker posted earnings that beat expectations for the first quarter.

Sprint gained 4.2% after the wireless carrier and T-Mobile US agreed on new terms for their merger.

Dropbox climbed 20.8% after the file-sharing service reported quarterly results that beat Wall Street's expectations.

Amrith Ramkumar contributed to this article.

Write to Caitlin Ostroff at caitlin.ostroff@wsj.com and Gunjan Banerji at Gunjan.Banerji@wsj.com


Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
DJ INDUSTRIAL 2.09% 23930.98 Delayed Quote.-20.62%
NASDAQ 100 0.44% 8266.775616 Delayed Quote.-7.83%
NASDAQ COMP. 1.04% 8176.303228 Delayed Quote.-12.10%
S&P 500 2.12% 2808.98 Delayed Quote.-17.69%
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