Stocks Go Into Shock. Dow Plunges Nearly 3,000 Points

Mar 16, 2020
Originally published on March 17, 2020 7:48 am

Updated at 4:21 p.m. ET

U.S. stock indexes fell sharply Monday, a day after the Federal Reserve aggressively cut interest rates to near zero in a bid to stop the economy from crashing. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 2,997.20 points, or about 13%, as coronavirus measures rapidly expanded. The S&P 500 index lost nearly 12%.

The Dow, which closed at 20,188.52, has lost 31.7% since its record high Feb. 12 as the market plunges deeper into bear territory after an 11-year winning streak.

The Dow's breathtaking drop Monday was the biggest since the Black Monday crash of October 1987, when the blue chip index lost 22%.

The deep stock market sell-off reflects broad concerns that despite these economic measures, the U.S. economy is likely heading toward a recession.

Many parts of the economy have abruptly come to a standstill. On Monday afternoon, most of Bay Area shut down from a directive. San Mateo Mayor Joe Goethals said only police and fire departments, hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies and a few other businesses will be allowed to remain open.

In the rest of the country, government orders temporarily closed restaurants and bars in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago and recommendations to ban groups of more than 10 people have been among the latest attempts to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The hard-hit airline industry is seeking $50 billion in aid and loans from the federal government. "The rapid spread of COVID-19, along with the government and business-imposed restrictions on air travel, are having a unprecedented and debilitating impact on U.S. airlines," the industry group Airlines for America said.

In an afternoon news conference, President Trump said "we're going to back the airlines, 100%."

Leaders of the Group of Seven — the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom — agreed to work together to speed up and coordinate the global response to the pandemic.

"We are mobilizing the full range of instruments, including monetary and fiscal measures, as well as targeted actions, to support immediately and as much as necessary the workers, companies, and sectors most affected," the G-7 said in a statement.

The S&P 500 index continued to fall after temporary trading halts were lifted on the New York Stock Exchange Friday morning. A 7% drop in the S&P 500 automatically forces trading to stop for 15 minutes, which has happened three times in the past week.

On Sunday evening, the Fed took the extraordinary move of cutting rates by 1 percentage point to near zero. The last time it moved rates that low was in 2008, during the financial crisis.

"The effects of the coronavirus will weigh on economic activity in the near term and pose risks to the economic outlook," the Fed said in a statement.

The drops on Wall Street follow steep falls in Europe, where stock indexes were down as much as 11% Monday.

Oil prices fell nearly 9% to about $29 per barrel. They're down more than 50% so far this year.

In cutting its key interest rate to near zero, the Fed has not left itself much room to act on rates in the future. It has basically given up a major policy tool — one that it would need if the economy tumbled into recession.

The Fed also said it will buy $700 billion of Treasurys and other government securities to help grease the financial markets. It took similar steps, known as quantitative easing, during the financial crisis.

The Fed said it's "prepared to use its full range of tools to support the flow of credit to households and businesses."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Good morning. We are here for you on this morning when the stock market has taken another dramatic plunge, at least for now. NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley is with us. I'm in our studios here in Washington, D.C.; Scott working from home today, practicing a bit of social distancing. Scott, good morning to you.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Not a good day on the markets. They opened immediately down. What happened?

HORSLEY: That's right. The circuit breaker is supposed to kick in anytime the S&P 500 index falls by 7% to pause trading for 15 minutes and give investors a chance to catch their breath. This morning, the selling was so furious right out of the gate that the S&P actually dipped about 8% before the circuit breaker could even kick in. So then we did have a 15-minute pause. Trading resumed about 20 minutes ago, and stocks have continued their downward slide. As of now, the - looks like the S&P is down about 10%, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average also down about 10% or 2,500 points.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Let's remember, the Dow Jones Industrial is a limited batch of blue-chip companies. That's way down. But the S&P, which is a much broader index - way down. And all of this happened after, we must note - after the Federal Reserve took emergency action on Sunday to lower interest rates almost to zero, which seemed to be something that was designed to reassure the markets.

HORSLEY: It is. But, you know, the Fed is responding to what has become a very abrupt slowdown in large chunks of the U.S. economy. We have seen public health officials at the state, local and federal level adopt increasingly aggressive measures to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and those tough but necessary measures are having pretty dire consequences for big chunks of the U.S. economy.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell acknowledged that yesterday. He said we are almost sure to see a contraction in the economy in the months ahead. And so the Fed is trying to do what it can to cushion the blow, even if its monetary tools may not be exactly what the market needs right - what the economy needs right now.

INSKEEP: Is it possible the Fed scared people by making this sudden action?

HORSLEY: Yes, I think both the magnitude of the action and the fact that it came on a Sunday afternoon kind of fed into some alarm. And the Fed has also said that other parts of government need to do their part. Right now the president is conferring with other G7 leaders, so we may see more action both from Congress and from the administration.

INSKEEP: OK. Now, let's just bear in mind, as we go forward here, that the Dow Jones Industrials could also bounce up 2,000 points, as it did on Friday. We don't want to read too much into the last 40 minutes or so of trading, but it's been pretty brutal. And NPR's Scott Horsley is helping us to keep track of it through the morning. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.