Dow drops nearly 3,000 points, as coronavirus collapse continues; worst day since '87

The S&P 500 fell more than 11 percent on coronavirus fears—Five experts on what to watch
S&P 500 fell more than 11% on coronavirus fears—Five experts on what to watch

Stocks fell sharply Monday — with the Dow suffering its worst day since the "Black Monday" market crash in 1987 and its third-worst day ever — even after the Federal Reserve embarked on a massive monetary stimulus campaign to curb slower economic growth amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed 2,997.10 points lower, or 12.9%, at 20,188.52. The 30-stock Dow was briefly down more than 3,000 points in the final minutes of trading. The S&P 500 dropped 12% to 2,386.13 — hitting its lowest level since December 2018 — while the Nasdaq Composite closed 12.3% lower at 6,904.59 in its worst day ever.

"The markets are getting no break with yesterday's historic Fed actions and COVID-19 dominating the world's headlines," Frank Cappelleri, executive director at Instinet, said in a note. "While the news continues to worsen and with the price action doing things we've only seen a handful of other times in the last century, it's nearly impossible to keep things in perspective."

"We can't argue the facts, and we're dealing with a much bigger issue than just the economy," Cappelleri said. 

The major averages fell to their lows into the close after President Donald Trump said the worst of the outbreak could last until August. He also told reporters the U.S. "may be" heading into a recession.

"The market didn't hear what it wanted to hear. I don't think that it wanted to hear that this was going to last until July and August, and now the market does the math. If it lasts until July and August, that means we maybe have a contraction in the second quarter and the third quarter, and that means recession," BNY Mellon strategist Liz Young said on CNBC's "Closing Bell."

Monday's losses put the Dow down 31.7% from its all-time high and the S&P 500 and Nasdaq more than 29% below their records last month. The Dow fell to its lowest point since 2017.

The Dow's drop was the worst decline since its "Black Monday" crash three decades ago when it fell more than 22%. The drop surpassed its 9.99% tumble last Thursday. It was also the Dow's third-worst day ever; it dropped more than 13% in late 1929.

Trading was halted for 15 minutes shortly after the open as a then-8% drop on the S&P 500 triggered a so-called circuit breaker. It was the third time in the last week a circuit breaker was triggered. Those circuit breakers are imposed by the exchanges to maintain orderly market behavior.

While the central bank's actions may help ease the functioning of markets, many investors said they would ultimately want to see coronavirus cases peaking and falling in the U.S. before it was safe to take on risk and buy equities again.

The Fed's move, in tandem with headlines suggesting the White House is preparing a tax break for consumers and a bailout for the airlines industry, made some investors more optimistic on the market. 

"This entire market would turn around in one second if the government came out and said, we're going to provide business interruption insurance to companies that lose money in the second quarter if they don't fire any workers," Ricky Sandler, Eminence Capital CEO, told CNBC's Scott Wapner.

But that optimism gave way into the close as President Trump spoke at a press conference on the coronavirus from the White House. 

On Sunday, the Fed cut interest rates down to basically zero, their lowest level since 2015, and launched a massive $700 billion quantitative easing program. Trump said he was "very happy" with the announcement, adding: "I think that people in the markets should be very thrilled."

"This, coupled with an important fiscal package, should help cushion the economic downside from the virus' effect on economic activity," said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Financial. "It's going to be positive, but the market is at the mercy of the virus and at the mercy of whether the containment policies work."

The Fed's announcement came after it issued another emergency rate cut earlier this month. It also comes on the heels of the market's biggest one-day gain since 2008, with the major averages all surging more than 9% on Friday.

However, news about the coronavirus outbreak did not help sentiment. U.S. cases have jumped to 3,774 and 69 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged organizers to cancel or postpone events with more than 50 people. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut governors banned eating in restaurants and limited events to less than 50 people.

Amid the dire headlines on the coronavirus, investors called for a substantial fiscal response from Congress and the White House.

U.S. airlines are seeking $50 billion in government assistance to curb the virus' blow to the industry, according to CNBC. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-UT, proposed Monday sending every U.S. adult $1,000 to ease the financial pain from the virus. That proposal came after National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said the administration "might" provide direct cash assistance to U.S. households. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, will reportedly propose a stimulus package of at least $750 billion. 

"The main problem this time as to other market disruptions is the abrupt closure of economic activity," said Dan Deming, managing director at KKM Financial. "The speed of the impact to middle America, let alone the global community is relatively unprecedented."

Apple shares plunged by 12.9%. Bank stocks took a hit, with Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase each dropping more than 14%. Morgan Stanley fell 15.6% while Citigroup dropped 19.3%. The big banks announced Sunday they were halting their buyback programs in an effort to provide capital where needed

Airline came off their lows after Trump said the administration would "backstop the airlines." Delta shares closed just 6.7% lower after falling more than 10%. American Airlines was up more than 10% after plunging earlier in the day.

Investors have been dumping equities amid worries the coronavirus will slow economic growth and take a bite out of corporate profits. Economists at JPMorgan see negative growth for the first quarter while Goldman Sachs downgraded its first-quarter growth forecast to flat from 0.7%.

"The rapid spread of COVID-19 across the globe has dramatically heightened investor uncertainty and rocked global financial markets," strategists at MRB Partners said in a note, adding the situation will "get worse before it gets better."

"Looking ahead, the number of active cases is likely to worsen in the near run," they said.

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—CNBC's Jeff Cox, Silvia Amaro and Pippa Stevens contributed to this report.