U.S. Stock Futures Drop With Virus News Rattling Investor Nerves

U.S. stock futures fell in a signal the sell-off in American equities will continue after a torrent of weekend news fortified concerns the coronavirus would severely damage the global economy.

Contracts on the S&P 500 dropped 1% to 2,920 as of 6:31 p.m. in New York, with losses mitigated by speculation the Federal Reserve will cut interest rates this month. The underlying index sank 11% in the prior five sessions in the biggest weeklyrout since the financial crisis. Dow Jones Industrial Average futures slid 1.8% and Nasdaq 100 contracts lost 2.3%.

Stocks are mired in a seven-day rout that’s brought the bull market to its knees, as the spread of the virus disrupts travel and threatens supply chains. The news got worse since markets were last open, though calls for a Fed rate-cut intensified, with President Donald Trump saying the central bank should act. Goldman Sachs, whose equity strategists warned American companies might not see profit growth this year, now expects a 50 basis-point cut no later than its March meeting.

“The unknown hit to growth aside, Fed Chair Powell signaled the FOMC’s willingness to ease policy in response to the outbreak, which is consistent with the Fed’s primary goal of easing financial conditions to extend the cycle,” Dennis Debusschere wrote in a note. “They will use every tool possible to achieve that goal.”

The sell-off Sunday highlighted the fragility of investor confidence as the virus outbreak worsens. Expectations for Fed intervention boosted spirits into the close on Friday, when investors poured into stocks to cut a drop that reached 4% to just 0.8% after Chairman Jerome Powell opened the door to a reduction by issuing a rare statement pledging to “act as appropriate” to support the economy.

Calls for an emergency cut mounted over the weekend, and President Donald Trump said the Fed should lower rates. Bank of America now expects the central bank to shave 50 basis points at its March meeting.

Doubt persisted that rate cuts will actually be able to stimulate activity amid a health emergency that threatens to reduce both supply and demand in the economy. China’s manufacturing sector saw activitycontract sharply in February, with the official gauge hitting the lowest level on record, highlighting the devastating impact of the coronavirus on the economy.

“The China PMIs were expected to be really bad, but they were off the charts bad,” said Nathan Thooft, Manulife Asset Management’s head of global asset allocation. “Unfortunately the news on a U.S. death seemed inevitable. Human tragedy, but expected. From an investment and consumer sentiment perspective, it’s another level of worry that will be on people’s minds.”

Market pain wasn’t confined to stocks. The offshore yuan fell Sunday and Australia’s dollar plumbed fresh 11-year lows. Treasuries surged last week, pushing yields on the 10- and 30-year notes to record lows. Oil plunged through $45 a barrel in its biggest weekly rout since 2008.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. economists now expect the virus to inflict a “short-lived global contraction” on the world economy that forces the Fed to slash rates in the first half.

Trump said Saturday that investors should take solace from the strength of the American consumer, even as his virus task force warned the number of cases would likely rise.

“The markets will all come back,” Trump said. “The markets are very strong, the consumer is unbelievably strong, the companies are very strong. It’s certainly not a good situation, when you lose travel that’s a big part of market.”

While the virus broke out in China in late January, the threat to American markets didn’t register until Feb. 19 — three days after Apple Inc. warned that its sales would be hampered by the outbreak. The S&P 500 closed at a record that day. Since then, the number of companies cutting revenue and profit targets has surged. Stocks have plunged 13%, leaving the bull market’s vitality in jeopardy.

“The problem is people faded this right out of the gate, and now it’s not going away overnight,” Dan McMurtrie, founder and portfolio manager at Tyro Partners, said by phone. “People trying to buy thedip are getting run over.”

— With assistance by Luke Kawa, Claire Ballentine, Vildana Hajric, and Lu Wang

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