By The Washington Post · Thomas Heath, Jacob Bogage · BUSINESS, US-GLOBAL-MARKETS
The Dow Jones industrial average plunged 410 points, or 1.9 percent, to cap the most dismal first quarter of its 135-year history. The blue-chip index ended the day at 21,917.16 - a full 23 percent below its January start and 26 percent off the record high it set in February.
It also was a record bad quarter for the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index, which is down 20 percent this year and 24 percent from the all-time high it set Feb. 19. The broad index stumbled 42 points, or 1.6 percent, to close Tuesday at 2,584.59.
The Nasdaq composite index closed out the three-month period at 7,700.10. The tech-heavy index fell 74 points, nearly 1 percent on the day and 14 percent for 2020.
European markets posted gains across the board. Trading was mixed in Asia with positive manufacturing news coming out of China; data suggests that the nation may be on the upswing after closing down early this year to fight the virus.
The virus has killed more than 40,000 people and infected more than 850,000 worldwide. Much of the United States is in a virtual lockdown in an effort to rein in the disease, confining tens of millions of Americans to their homes and destabilizing entire industries. The economic lethargy that has ensued has sparked panic on Wall Street, swiftly sending stocks into steep decline.
Just six weeks ago, investors were riding high from a historic bull market and a decade of stellar returns - including 30 percent in 2019. The Dow was within a wisp of crashing through the 30,000 threshold.
But many thought the good times might be wearing thin coming into 2020. Trillion-dollar federal deficits, astronomical stock valuations and years of ultralow interest rates sowed doubts about whether the bull still had legs.
"We were at significant risk to any catalyst given the froth that was in the market," said Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist at Charles Schwab. "We were at risk for at least a pullback with even a mild catalyst because sentiment was at an extreme. What we got was the ultimate negative catalyst."
All but five of the Dow 30 finished in the red on Tuesday. American Express, Home Depot and Procter & Gamble were the big losers. Energy was the lone S&P sector that was in the positive column as oil prices rallied a bit in the midst of the worst month and quarter in oil price history. The hibernating economy, combined with oversupplied oil markets, has sent the price of a barrel of oil to levels not seen in at least 20 years.
The down quarter showed some hopeful signs. Several health-care companies, including Johnson & Johnson, have reported progress on a coronavirus vaccine. Abbott Laboratories is making available a breakthrough virus test that returns results in as little as five minutes.
Tuesday's session had its upswings, buoyed by better-than-expected readings on the economy. Consumer confidence fell from 132.6 to 120, which was not as bad as analysts had feared. Goldman Sachs revised expectations for the rest of the fiscal year, predicting unemployment as high as 15 percent because of the coronavirus outbreak, but also a rapid economic rebound.
Stocks have rallied in four of the past five sessions, with the Dow popping 18 percent from its recent low on March 23 and the S&P jumping 16 percent from its low. Markets surged on massive rescue packages from the Federal Reserve and Capitol Hill, including a $2.2 trillion stimulus that will provide $1,200 payments to adults with annual incomes up to $75,000, plus $500 per child. Some Americans earning more than $75,000 will also receive money if they meet certain qualifications.
Sonders said the recent stock gains are partly a result of investors buying stocks to restore the ratio of equities to other assets, a process known as rebalancing.
Investors are bracing for bad numbers later this week - and many more weeks of negative economic news. This weekend, President Donald Trump urged Americans to stay home through April, at the recommendation of federal health officials.
Economists predict that the number of jobless claims nationwide could rise from the record 3.3 million reported last week. Monthly unemployment figures will be published Friday.
Some analysts project that 40 million Americans could be out of work by mid-April, which could leave many struggling to make rent and mortgage payments.
Already, permanent and temporary job losses are piling up as businesses shutter or curtail operations. On Monday, Macy's announced it would furlough most of its 125,000 workers after sales flatlined. Kohl's, Gap and Sysco confirmed tens of thousands of furloughs and layoffs. On Tuesday, Simon Property Group, the nation's largest mall owner, furloughed 30 percent of its workforce. J.C. Penney said it will furlough most of its 90,000 workers.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, reported that coronavirus cases in the Empire State, a U.S. hot spot amid the pandemic, increased by 14 percent overnight.
"The recession is going to be deep but short," said Scott Wren of Wells Fargo Investment Institute. "But it's going to take time before people get back to normal. We are looking at negative GDP for the year and a loss for the S&P between 10 and 15 percent."
Sonders said the longer the economic shutdown lasts, the more difficult it will be for the economy to bounce back.
"The longer it goes on means we have less of a chance of anything resembling a V-shaped recovery," she said. "There is too much uncertainty" to predict when the economy will improve. "There is a unique amount of uncertainty."