Dow drops 1,400 points and tumbles into a bear market, down 20% from last month's record close

The Dow just plunged more than 1,400 points—Eight experts break down the sell-off
The Dow just plunged more than 1,400 points—Eight experts break down the sell-off

The coronavirus-induced sell-off reached a new low on Wednesday as Wall Street grappled with the rapid spread of the virus as well as uncertainty around a fiscal response to curb slower economic growth resulting from the outbreak.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled 1,464.94 points, or 5.9%, to close at 23,553.22. The 30-stock average closed in a bear market, down more than 20% below the record close set only last month and putting to end an expansion that started in 2009 amid the financial crisis.

The S&P 500 ended the day 4.9% lower at 2,741.38 and just short of a bear market. The Nasdaq Composite fell 4.7% to 7,952.05 and was also about 19% below its all-time high. A 20% decline is considered a bear market on Wall Street. However, most investors don't recognize it officially until an index does it on a closing basis.

"We can see the panic in the equity market," said Jerry Braakman, chief investment officer of First American Trust. "The big question for most people is, are we at the bottom yet? I think we're only about halfway there."

Losses intensified on Wednesday after the World Health Organization declared the outbreak an official global pandemic. The number of coronavirus cases around the world totaled more than 100,000, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. In the U.S. alone, more than 1,000 cases have been confirmed. This increase in cases added to fears of a global economic slowdown and have increased calls for government intervention.

President Donald Trump suggested Tuesday a 0% payroll tax rate that could last until the end of the year. However, the timing of such policies being implemented remains uncertain. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who heads the Senate Finance Committee, said such a tax cut needed to be examined.

Tuchman: The promise of a stimulus package isn't coming to fruition
Tuchman: The promise of a stimulus package isn't coming to fruition

"Markets seem disappointed that the White House did not release details of its fiscal response to the coronavirus," said Brian Gardner, a Washington policy analyst at KBW. "We are still in early days and policymakers are continuing to grapple with different options and negotiate between the two parties and between Congress and the administration."

Central banks have also acted to curb slower economic growth. The Bank of England on Wednesday cut its benchmark rate by 50 basis points to 0.25%. The Federal Reserve also increased the amount of money it is providing to banks through overnight repo lending to $175 billion. This follows the Fed's emergency half point rate cut last week. 

The uncertainty around fiscal stimulus, coupled with a reduction in travel demand and rising coronavirus cases, pressured airline and cruise line stocks. American, Delta, United and JetBlue all fell at least 4.3%. Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival fell 26.7% and 9.5%, respectively. 

"We need to see meaningful support for economic activity and credit backstops especially for small businesses, not a targeted approach executed only by the executive branch," Joe Kalish, chief global macro strategist at Ned Davis Research, said in a note. "We will likely need congressional involvement.  This is a potential solvency problem."

Bank shares also fell broadly. Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase fell 4% and 4.7%, respectively. Citigroup lost 8.6% while Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs both dropped more than 6.5%.

Wednesday's moves came after the major averages posted sharp gains in the previous session. The Dow rallied more than 1,100 points while the S&P 500 had its best one-day performance since Dec. 26, 2018.

"Stocks posted impressive headline gains, but more strength needs to be seen beneath the surface to have confidence that the downside momentum in stocks has been broken," Willie Delwiche, investment strategist at Baird, said in a note. "The weight of the evidence continues to argue for caution in the near term and we recommend that investors remain patient in the face of ongoing market volatility."

CNBC's Silvia Amaro and Peter Schacknow contributed to this report.

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