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Stocks sink on Wall Street as grim economic news pours in

The Associated Press

New York – Stocks swung back down Wednesday after more signs piled up of the economic damage being caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Markets have been stuck cycling between fear and budding optimism in recent weeks as investors try to guess how long and deep the looming recession will be, with the switch often flipping overnight or even within the same day. Economists have been slashing their forecasts in preparation for what they say may be the worst downturn since the Great Depression, but several reports that came out Wednesday were even more dismal than expected.

Retail sales sank a record 8.7% last month as lockdowns around the country to slow the spread of the virus closed stores and kept people at home. A separate survey of business conditions for manufacturers in New York state plunged to its lowest level in history, by a wide margin. Industrial production across the country also failed to meet economists’ already low expectations.

Stocks around the world and Treasury yields were already down in early Wednesday trading, and their drops accelerated after the release of the reports. Lower yields are a sign that demand for relatively safe investments like U.S. government bonds is increasing.

The S&P 500 was down 2.4% after the first half hour of trading. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 494 points, or 2.1%, to 23,455, and the Nasdaq was down 1.9%.

Energy stocks took the sharpest losses after oil prices plunged to another 18-year low. Those in the S&P 500 index fell 5.8%.

Demand for oil around the world will fall this year by a record amount, the International Energy Agency said Wednesday. Benchmark U.S. crude touched its lowest price since 2002 before recovering slighlty to $20.14 a barrel, little changed from a day earlier. Brent crude, the international standard, fell $1.27 to $28.30.

Earlier, the International Monetary Fund said this year’s global economic output will shrink by 3%, a bigger loss than 2009’s 0.1% decline during the financial crisis. That was a sharp reverse from the Fund’s January forecast of 3.3% growth before the virus prompted governments to shut down factories, travel and other industries.

“The IMF forecast a deep economic winter,” said Hayaki Narita of Mizuho Bank in a report. Narita said.

In Europe, London’s FTSE 100 lost 2.5%, and the DAX in Frankfurt declined 3.2%. The CAC 40 in France retreated 2.9% to 4,437. The Nikkei 225 in Tokyo declined 0.5% , and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng was off 1.2%.

Investors are focusing on how and when authorities may begin to ease business shutdowns and limits on people’s movements imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The S&P 500 had jumped 3.1% just a day earlier on hopes that the outbreak was leveling off in some hotspots and could lead to parts of the economy opening back up.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been discussing how to roll back federal social distancing recommendations. U.S. governors are collaborating on plans to reopen their economies in what is likely to be a gradual process to prevent the coronavirus from rebounding.

China has reopened factories, shops and other businesses after declaring victory over the outbreak but forecasters say it will take months for industries to return to normal output, while exporters will face depressed global demand.

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AP Business Writer Joe McDonald contributed.