The Fed tries to calm heads—but markets roil instead

March 4, 2020, 1:46 AM UTC

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Good evening, Bull Sheeters. This is Fortune finance reporter Rey Mashayekhi, filling in this week for Bernhard Warner. We’re trying something new: To keep you informed on the latest developments in the Asian and U.S. markets amid the coronavirus scare, I’ll be sending you a special evening (or morning, for those of you in Asia) edition of the newsletter. We’ll be back to regular scheduling next week.

After reversing some of last week’s precipitous, coronavirus-induced declines on Monday, the global markets were much more tepid on Tuesday. And in the U.S., even a big helping hand from the Fed couldn’t stem considerable losses.

Markets update

First to Asia, where markets on mainland China continued to show signs of life despite negative manufacturing indicators in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. The major indices in Shanghai and Shenzhen all ended the day up around 1%.

The same could not be said for the markets in Hong Kong and Tokyo, both of which saw early gains give way to losses by the close of trading. The Hang Seng ended the day down marginally, while the Nikkei lost more than 1% despite measures taken by the Bank of Japan to counter the coronavirus outbreak’s impact. 

The Japanese central bank has taken to buying hundreds of billions of yen in ETFs and government debt this week to “provide ample liquidity and ensure stability in financial markets,” according to BOJ governor Haruhiko Kuroda. But with Japan already operating on negative interest rates, investors may be skeptical of the BOJ’s ability to stem the tide should conditions continue to worsen.

In Europe, most of the major indices—including London’s FTSE, Frankfurt’s DAX, and the pan-European STOXX 600—registered gains around 1% on Tuesday. Like her counterparts in the U.S. and Japan, European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde has said that the ECB is “ready to take appropriate and targeted measures” to support its economy in the face of coronavirus-related headwinds. Commerzbank is already forecasting a “decisive” interest rate cut and heightened bond-buying program by the ECB—despite the fact that Europe, like Japan, is already in negative interest-rate territory.

Indeed, central banks globally are coordinating their efforts to deal with the fallout from the coronavirus outbreak, as evidenced by an emergency conference call Tuesday involving the top economic policymakers at the Group of Seven nations. That conference was led by Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell, whose own central bank followed up on its pledge to take action by cutting its benchmark interest rate by half a percent, to a range of 1% to 1.25%.

The emergency rate cut—which comes two weeks before the Fed was originally slated to meet this month—is the first time the U.S. central bank has taken such action between scheduled policy meetings, and its largest single move on interest rates, since the height of the financial crisis in 2008. But if the Fed’s aim was to calm the markets in New York and sustain Monday’s rally, it fell wide of the mark.

After rising 300 points early in the day’s trading, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged to end the day down almost 800 points, or nearly 3%. Likewise, the Nasdaq Composite and S&P 500 couldn’t sustain early gains, with both indices also finishing Tuesday down nearly 3%.

That won’t assuage fears that the market could continue onward in correction territory, rather than experiencing a mere blip spurred by a temporary—albeit serious—black swan event. Such fears were evident in the fact that the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note fell below 1% yield for the first time ever on Tuesday, as cautious investors flocked to bonds to insulate themselves from roiling equity markets. Gold prices rose, evoking a similar sentiment, while crude oil was flat and the dollar fell.

Hang tight—it’s only Tuesday, and who knows where things go from here. For now, have a pleasant evening and see you tomorrow.

Rey Mashayekhi

Today's reads

Buy the dip? Not so fast. Shawn Tully, Fortune's legendary scribe of all things finance, offers up a great read today on whether stock market investors should try to take advantage of the current selloff in a bid to boost their own portfolios. But Shawn cautions against any such designs; instead, he notes that metrics like those developed by Nobel laureate economist Robert Shiller indicate that "stocks have simply gone from outrageously overpriced to extremely overpriced."

The SEC won't let me be. In Washington, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission seems to be on the verge of a big win as far as preserving its power to hold those who violate securities laws accountable. The Supreme Court appears set to rule in favor of the SEC's right to ask a federal court to order the repayment of financial gains obtained through fraud—a tool that the regulator used to recoup $3.2 billion last year.

More debt, more problemsThe coronavirus outbreak is affecting all kinds of companies, but some are more vulnerable than others—specifically, those with more debt than usual on their books. The likes of Richard Branson's Virgin Australia Holdings, casino operator MGM China, and movie theater chain AMC Entertainment Holdings are among those that may feel the hurt more than most, should economic conditions get worse and their creditors come calling.

Market candy


That's how much the S&P 500's real estate sector declined on Tuesday—the least significant drop of all 11 sectors tracked by the index. The Fed's decision to cut interest rates may be a pain for financial institutions who rely on net interest income to make money (the S&P's financials sector was down 3.7% Tuesday), but they're great for real estate investors and home buyers who can take advantage of lower borrowing costs when looking to obtain a mortgage. That, in turn, could very well drive more people to purchase homes.

It's no surprise, then, that some of America's largest home builders were among the publicly-traded names that managed to escape Tuesday's losses on Wall Street; the likes of Lennar Corporation (up 2.6%), D.R. Horton (1.4%), PulteGroup (1.5%), and NVR (1.5%) all saw their shares register gains by the end of trading.

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