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Stocks turn lower after New York tightens coronavirus clampdown

Last Updated Mar 20, 2020 at 3:36 pm EDT

A pair of specialists prepare for the day's trading activity on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on March 2, 2020. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Richard Drew

Stocks turned lower Friday, giving up an early rally, after New York became the latest major state to mandate nearly all workers stay home to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average erased an early gain of 444 points and was down 140 points, or 0.7%, in early afternoon trading.

The S&P 500, the benchmark for many index funds held in 401(k) accounts and the measure preferred by professional investors, was down 1.4% after being up 1.8% earlier.

Major indexes are on track for heavy losses for the second week in a row after some punishing drops. The S&P 500 is down 12% for the week and is off roughly 28% since reaching a record high a month ago. It’s close to its lowest point since late 2018.

Investors are weighing the likelihood that the global economy is entering a recession because of the massive shutdowns and layoffs caused by the outbreak against steps by central banks and governments to ease the economic pain.

Ultimately, 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.”

Investors continued to seek safety in U.S. government bonds, driving their yields broadly lower. The 10-year Treasury yield, which influences interest rates on mortgages and other consumer loans, slid to 0.94% from 1.12% late Thursday.

In energy markets, benchmark U.S. crude slid 6% to $24.25 per barrel. The price of gold climbed 1.1%.

The mixed start for the U.S. indexes followed solid gains across markets in Europe. Stock markets in Asia closed higher.

Hopes are rising that there will be progress in finding virus treatments and that “a boatload of stimulus by both central banks and governments will put the global economy in position for a U-shaped recovery,” said Edward Moya of Oanda in a report.

Members of President Donald Trump’s economic team were convening Friday on Capitol Hill to launch negotiations with Senate Republicans and Democrats racing to draft a $1 trillion-plus economic rescue package amid the coronavirus outbreak.

It’s the biggest effort yet to shore up households and the U.S. economy as the pandemic and its nationwide shutdown hurtles the country toward a likely recession.

Airlines, hotels and cruise line operators rose as Congress worked on the economic stimulus bill that would include billions in aid to those industries. United Airlines surged 17% and MGM Resorts International jumped 25%. Carnival vaulted 23%. Despite the big gains, the stocks are still down sharply for the year.

On Thursday, the European Central Bank launched a program to inject money into credit markets by purchasing up to 750 billion euros ($820 billion) in bonds. The Bank of England cut its key interest rate to a record low of 0.1% and restarted its own program of money injections into the financial system. Australia’s central bank cut its benchmark lending rate to 0.25%. Central banks in Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines also cut rates.

They are trying to reduce the impact of a global recession that forecasters say looks increasingly likely as the United States and other governments tighten travel controls, close businesses and tell consumers and travellers to stay home.

The U.S. Federal Reserve unveiled measures Thursday to support money-market funds and the borrowing of dollars as investors in markets worldwide hurry to build up cash as insurance against falling asset prices.

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.

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.

Wall Street has bounced up and down by record-setting margins of up to 12% over the past week.

Unease has grown as forecasters say a global recession looks increasingly likely and have cut growth outlooks for the United States, China and other major economies.