A worker cleans up an electronic stock board of a securities firm in Tokyo, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Asian stock markets have tumbled as concern about the impact of a Chinese disease outbreak on tourism and regional economies grows. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

US stocks stall out following Asian sell-off on virus fears

January 21, 2020 - 12:02 pm

U.S. stocks were mixed Tuesday in the first trading day of a holiday-shortened week, following up on losses around the world as worries deepened about a virus outbreak in China.

The S&P 500 opened trading with modest losses but nearly eliminated them all as the morning progressed. Asian stocks dropped sharply, while European markets also stumbled on concerns that the new coronavirus spreading in the world’s second-largest economy could hurt tourism and ultimately economic growth and corporate profits. Six people have died, and 291 have been infected in China, just as people in the country were preparing to make billions of trips for the Lunar New Year travel season.

Investors are looking at playbooks for past outbreaks, such as SARS in 2002-2003, where airlines, railways and other transportation companies saw their stocks slide the most, followed by retailers and hospitality companies, according to strategists at Jefferies.

Within the S&P 500, stocks of U.S. companies that cater to Chinese tourists had some of the biggest losses, along with general travel companies, such as casinos and airlines. Gains for dividend-paying stocks and technology companies helped more than halve the index's loss as the morning progressed.

Tuesday’s drop for the index follows a strong run, which had sent the S&P 500 to records. Fears of a possible recession have faded, and investors expect the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates low, and the S&P 500 has risen in 13 of the last 15 weeks.

U.S. companies are in the midst of reporting their earnings results for the last three months of 2019, and early indications are encouraging. Less than a tenth of S&P 500 companies have reported their results so far, but of them, 72% topped analysts’ forecasts for profits. Those forecasts were low, to be sure, with analysts saying S&P 500 profits fell last quarter for the fourth consecutive time, according to FactSet.

KEEPING SCORE: The S&P 500 was down 0.1%, as of 11:45 a.m. Eastern time. It had been down as much as 0.4% earlier in the day.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average slipped 32 points, or 0.1%, to 29,31, and the Nasdaq composite was up 0.1%. Roughly four stocks fell for every three that rose on the New York Stock Exchange.

CHILL IN CHINA: China confirmed many people’s fears late Monday when a government expert said that the new type of coronavirus affecting the country can transmit from human to human, increasing its potential spread.

The outbreak “is developing into a major potential economic risk to the Asia-Pacific region,” said Rajiv Biswas of IHS Markit in a report.

Biswas pointed to the example of the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, whose economic impact was felt as far away as Canada and Australia.

ASIAN SELL-OFF: The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong dropped 2.8%, and stocks in Shanghai lost 1.4%. Other Asian markets slumped in concert, including a 1% fall for South Korea’s Kospi and a 0.9% decline for Japan’s Nikkei 225.

Hong Kong stocks were also affected by a downgrade of the government's credit rating by Moody's Investors Service. Moody's cited its lack of “tangible plans” to respond to months of anti-government protests. In Japan, meanwhile, the country's central bank raised its forecast for economic growth while affirming its commitment to stimulus for the economy.

European markets also fell, though the losses were more modest. The FTSE 100 in London dropped 0. 6 %, France’s CAC 40 fell 0. 5 % and Germany’s DAX was virtually flat %.

US IMPACT: Las Vegas Sands fell 4.1 %, and Wynn Resorts fell 4.5 % for two of the largest losses in the S&P 500. Both casino companies get most of their revenue from Macau on China’s southern coast.

Other travel companies also slumped on worries that customers may stay away due to virus fears. Royal Caribbean Cruises fell 3.8%, Delta Air Lines lost 3.6%, and Booking Holdings dropped 2.2 %.

EARNINGS PARADE: Halliburton joined the growing list of companies to report stronger results than analysts expected, and its stock rose 1. 5 %. The oilfield services provider reported a loss for the quarter and a decline in revenue, but the numbers nevertheless topped Wall Street's forecasts.

YIELDS: The yield on the 10-year Treasury note slumped to 1.77% from 1.83% late Friday.

DRUMMING UP DIVIDENDS: When bonds are paying less in interest, dividend-paying stocks begin to look more attractive to income investors. That helped real-estate investment trusts and utility stocks to rise in particular.

COMMODITIES: Benchmark U.S. crude fell 19 cents to $58.39 Brent crude, the international standard, dropped 52 cents to $64.68.

Gold lost $3.50 to $1,556.80 per ounce.

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AP Business Writer Joe McDonald contributed.

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