After surprise rate cut from Federal Reserve, U.S. stocks slump anyway

It took just 15 minutes for a rally to evaporate following the Fed’s surprise move.
In a surprise move, the Federal Reserve cut its benchmark interest rate by a half-percentage point in an effort to support the economy in the face of the spreading coronavirus. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said that the coronavirus "poses evolving risks to economic activity."
In a surprise move, the Federal Reserve cut its benchmark interest rate by a half-percentage point in an effort to support the economy in the face of the spreading coronavirus. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said that the coronavirus "poses evolving risks to economic activity." [ JACQUELYN MARTIN | AP ]
Published March 3, 2020|Updated March 3, 2020

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NEW YORK — Stocks fell in early-afternoon trading Tuesday, wiping out a brief pop higher after the Federal Reserve swooped into the market with an emergency interest-rate cut in hopes of shielding the economy from the effects of the fast-spreading virus outbreak.

It took just 15 minutes for a rally to evaporate following the Fed’s surprise move. While it helped raise confidence for some investors, the cut did not wipe out the uncertainty dominating markets about whether the virus will lead to a recession. Within that fog of doubt, traders were debating about the effectiveness of a rate cut — the steepest one since 2008 — on what is ultimately a health crisis. Some are also questioning whether more aid is on the way to stabilize the market, while others called the Fed’s move premature to begin with.

After popping to a 1.5% gain shortly after the Fed’s announcement, the S&P 500 swung between modest gains and losses for about an hour before turning decisively lower in the late morning. The index was down 1.3 percent, as of 12:55 p.m. Eastern time, and other indexes had similar, jagged moves.

Everything from bond yields to a gauge of traders' fear in the stock market swung sharply following the Fed's cut. Markets have been on edge for nearly two weeks, as the virus spreads beyond China and companies across continents and industries say they expect it to hit their profits.

The Fed has a long history of coming to the market's rescue with lower rates and other stimulus, which has helped this bull market in U.S. stocks become the longest in history. Some analysts said the Fed's latest cut should provide some more confidence.

“Confidence in markets is crucial,” said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Financial. “Without confidence, you don’t have a market.”

The Dow Jones Industrial Average had jumped 5% Monday to its best day in more than a decade on rising anticipation for aid from the Fed and other central banks. Even before Tuesday’s rate announcement, traders were convinced that the Fed would cut rates by half a percentage point at its next meeting, scheduled for March 17-18. Monday’s surge followed up the worst week for the S&P 500 since the financial crisis as worries about the virus’ economic toll mounted.

But doubts are high about whether the medicine provided by central banks can be as effective this time around. Lower rates can encourage shoppers and businesses to borrow and spend more, but they can't reopen factories that have been shut or recall workers out due to quarantines.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said the central bank recognizes the fast spread of the virus is a risk for the economy, and he cited concerns from the travel and hotel industries. The high stakes pushed the Fed to cut rates outside of a regularly scheduled meeting for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis, when investors were considering a complete meltdown of the world's financial system as possible if not likely. That in itself may have added to the market's dread Tuesday.

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“I don’t believe that market participants woke up this morning thinking we were facing a crisis similar to the global financial crisis," said Kristina Hooper, chief global market strategist at Invesco. "But that’s what the Fed’s actions suggested to some.”

She said investors will likely have mixed emotions about the move for days.

Some economists also called the Fed's move premature, given that U.S. economic data has yet to show a sharp drop due to the virus.

"The nature of today's announcement could send the wrong signal to market participants, including individual investors who are concerned with recent market volatility," said Roger Aliaga-Diaz, chief economist of the Americas at Vanguard.

The Dow was down 427 points, or 1.6 percent, at 26,275. It was down as many as 356 points shortly after trading opened, only to swing to a gain of 381 points after the Fed’s announcement before moderating. The Nasdaq was down 1.3 percent.

European stock markets were broadly higher. Asian markets were also generally strong, though Japan’s Nikkei 225 fell 1.2 percent.

Bond yields swung following the Fed’s announcement. The yield on the 10-year Treasury slumped to 1.04 percent from 1.08 percent and was close to its record low. The 10-year yield tends to fall when expectations are for weak economic growth and inflation.

Gold jumped $50.50, or 3.2 percent, to $1,645.30. Investors often pile into the metal when they’re looking for safety or when they’re anticipating lower interest rates.

A gauge of fear in the stock market swung wildly up and down through the day. The VIX measures how much traders are paying to protect themselves from future swings in stocks, and it was relatively flat in early afternoon trading at 33.40. But it had eased as low as 25 immediately after the Fed's announcement, only to swing up to 35 an hour and a half later.

Earlier in the day, the Group of Seven major industrialized countries pledged support for the global economy, but they stopped short of announcing any specific new measures. Disappointment in the lack of action helped push U.S. stocks lower at the opening of trading, before the Fed surprised markets with its announcement of the steep, half-point rate cut at 10 a.m. Eastern time.

The G-7, which includes the U.S., Japan and Germany, among others, made its statement after weeks of warnings from companies that the virus will hit their finances. Economic groups have also warned of worsening forecasts for global economic growth.

Investors are still speculating whether other central banks will join and cut rates and offer stimulus in a coordinated effort around the world. Before the Fed made its move, the Reserve Bank of Australia cut its key interest rate to a record low 0.5 percent.

Payments processor Visa is among the latest companies warning investors. It expects first-quarter revenue to suffer because of the damage to international travel. Chipmaker Microchip Technology withdrew its profit forecast for the year because of the uncertainty surrounding the virus’ impact.

Worldwide, more than 90,000 people have been sickened and 3,100 have died. The number of countries hit by the virus has reached at least 70, with Ukraine and Morocco reporting their first cases.

U.S. markets have been hit hard by fear over the virus’ impact. Stocks surged on Monday over hopes that central banks will help shield the global economy. That followed a broad sell-off last week that erased gains for 2020 and sent indexes into what market watchers call a “correction,” or a fall of 10 percent or more from a peak.

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