Wall Street Selloff Trips Circuit Breakers, Prompting Fed Intervention

(Associated Press) The Federal Reserve is stepping up its purchases of Treasurys to try to ease jitters in the financial markets over the coronavirus outbreak.

The Fed is injecting $500 billion into short-term lending markets to address disruptions in the Treasury market. It is also broadening its ongoing purchases of Treasurys to include longer-term bonds. The moves caused the stock market to sharply pare its losses.

The action, being led by the New York Fed, is intended to keep credit markets functioning and ensure that banks can continue to provide loans to businesses and other borrowers across the economy. The move caused stock markets, which had been down nearly 10% Thursday, to sharply pare their losses.

Earlier in the day, the European Central Bank deployed targeted new stimulus measures to cushion the shock to the economy from the virus outbreak. The ECB’s president said, though, that monetary policy couldn’t do it alone and called for a “decisive and determined” response from governments.

ECB President Christine Lagarde said the economy was facing a “major shock” and that the central bank measures unveiled Thursday were “almost surgically” targeted at areas where monetary policy could help.

The deepening coronavirus crisis sent stocks into another alarming slide on Wall Street on Thursday, triggering a brief, automatic shutdown in trading for the second time this week.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down more than 2,100 points, or 9%, shortly before noon, while the broader S&P 500 was off 8.2%, amid a cascade of cancellations and shutdowns across the globe and rising worries that the White House and other authorities around the world can’t or won’t help the weakening economy any time soon.

Trading was halted for 15 minutes after a big sell-off at the opening bell tripped the so-called circuit breakers that were first adopted after the 1987 crash. Until this week, they hadn’t been activated since 1997. Losses accelerated afterward, and U.S. stocks were on pace for their biggest drop since the financial crisis of 2008.

A drop on Wednesday sent the Dow into what is known as a bear market for the first time in more than a decade when the index lost more than 20% from its all-time high, set just last month. The S&P 500 was likewise in danger of finishing the day Thursday in bear market territory. That would bring to a close the longest bull run in Wall Street history.

The latest sell-off came after President Donald Trump announced late Wednesday he would restrict travel to the U.S. from Europe in hopes of containing the virus, dealing another hit to the already battered airline and travel industries. Trump also outlined measures to extend financial help to individuals and businesses hurt by the crisis.

But “the market judgment on that announcement is that it’s too little, too late,” said Michael McCarthy of CMC Markets.

Strategists at Morgan Stanley said in a report Wednesday night that conditions have gotten bad enough to prod a deeply divided Washington to act, but “we think action may not be imminent and are unsure it will be sufficient.”

“This is bad. The worst and fastest stock market correction in our career,” Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Union, said in a research note overnight. “The economy is doomed to recession if the country stops working and takes the next 30 days off. The stock market knows it. Bet on it.”

For much of the morning, the the Dow was down to around 21,500, still still higher than it was on the day of Trump’s inauguration in 2017, when it closed at 19,827.

The damage was worldwide and eye-popping. Among the big moves:

— Travel stocks again were among the hardest hit. Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Cruises both lost more than a quarter of their value. Another drop for United Airlines put its loss for the year at nearly 50%.

— Oil continued its brutal week, with benchmark U.S. down to $31 per barrel.

— European stocks tumbled more than 10%, even after the European Central Bank pledged to buy more bonds and offer more help for the economy.

— In Asia, stocks in Thailand and the Philippines fell so fast that trading was temporarily halted. Japan’s Nikkei 225 sank 4.4% to its lowest close in four years, and South Korea’s market lost 3.9%.

— The interest payments that investors are willing to accept for buying U.S. Treasury bonds fell even further in another sign of fear in the market. In uncertain times, investors looking for safety sink money into bonds, pushing up the price but driving down the yield.

After earlier thinking that the virus could remain mostly in China and that any dip in the economy would be followed by a quick rebound, investors are seeing the damage and disruptions mount, with Italy locking itself down, the NBA suspending games and authorities in the U.S. and beyond banning large gatherings and closing schools.

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the virus in a matter of weeks.