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Tuesday, May 26, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Historic plunge in oil prices sends U.S. stocks reeling, with Dow losing nearly 600 points

UPDATED: Mon., April 20, 2020

This photo from March 9, 2020, shows a screen above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed 592 points down Monday after a free-fall of oil prices. (Richard Drew / AP)
This photo from March 9, 2020, shows a screen above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed 592 points down Monday after a free-fall of oil prices. (Richard Drew / AP)
By Jacob Bogage and Thomas Heath Washington Post

U.S. stocks were shaken deeply into the red Monday after oil traders desperate to unload near-term contracts for their vital commodity sold at a loss.

The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 592 points, 2.4%, to finish the day at 23,650.44. The broader Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 51 points, or 1.8%, to 2,823,16. The tech-heavy Nasdaq slid 89 points, or 1.0%, to 8,560.73.

Investors expect Monday’s volatility to stay in place in coming days as Wall Street heads into the thick of the earnings season, with closely watched names like Coca-Cola, Lockheed Martin, AT&T, Eli Lilly, American Express and Verizon releasing financial results this week.

Most companies are expected to report disappointing first-quarter earnings due to the coronavirus lockdown. But investors will be looking for clues on what companies are doing to prepare for the coming months, and whether they expect a brief or a long recession.

“No one knows what is coming this year,” said Howard Silverblatt of S&P Dow Jones Indices. “There is preparation for the negatives and the positives.”

Oil was the story of the day as a record drop in price – to the point where traders were paying to have someone take oil contracts – reflected the dire straits of a sector that is crucial to the global economy.

With many businesses shuttered by public health orders and travel almost totally scrapped due to the coronavirus outbreak, crude inventories continue to far outpace demand, even after the United States, Saudi Arabia and Russia agreed to siphon 10 million barrels of oil per day out of the market. Still, that cannot make up for the quantity of crude already sitting in refineries with no place to go.

“The whole U.S. oil system is physically backing up from pipelines to refineries because of a lack of demand and no oil storage space,” said Frank Verrastro of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The concern in the broader stock market is that the lack of demand shows we aren’t going to come out of this downturn like a V. It’s going to be a global recession.”

The May futures contract for West Texas Intermediate crude, which expires Tuesday, fell below $0 per barrel Monday afternoon. When futures contracts near expiration, prices generally dovetail with the price of a physical barrel of oil. The June contract, which expires on May 19, fell nearly 9%, $22.68 a barrel.

U.S. refineries have cut their intake because very few people are driving cars and people are not flying. Saudi Arabian crude arriving in the U.S. cannot be unloaded from tankers because there is no place to put it.

“Quite literally, barrels have to compete for scarce space in storage tanks,” Raymond James energy analyst Pavel Molchanov said. “While this issue may seem technical, fundamentally it is the direct result of the dramatic, unprecedented disruption in global oil demand caused by COVID.”

The average gallon of gasoline at American service stations costs $1.81 cents, with demand for crude oil at its lowest since 1995, according to AAA. Fuel in 39 states costs less than $2, on average.

All 11 stock market sectors were down on Monday, with energy, real estate and utilities the biggest laggards. Boeing, Dow Inc., American Express, Chevron and JPMorgan Chase were among the Dow’s big losers. Only two of the blue chips held onto positive gains.

Global markets also suffered as oil prices tanked. The German DAX lost 1.4%, and the FTSE in London fell 1.2%. In Asia, Japan’s Nikkei Index dropped 1.2%, and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong was nearly flat, down only 0.2%. India, though, traded in the green. The BSE Sensex in Mumbai rallied after lunchtime but returned most of the progress for a modest 0.2% gain.

Wall Street’s pullback followed two big weeks of gains as optimism built that governments and scientists were making inroads against the coronavirus. Analysts said the pause was not unexpected as people sort out where the global economy goes from here.

“Obviously oil was the big headline,” said Nicole Tanenbaum of Chequers Financial Management. “But there has also just been a massive amount of economic and health information in the last several days, and investors are trying to digest that.”

The Dow gained 700 points on Friday as governments worldwide, along with confederations of U.S. governors, began discussing plans to reopen parts of the economy. All 11 stock market sectors were up, with energy and financials leading the way.

The rally came after three weeks of dismal economic numbers showing the pandemic has erased all U.S. job growth from the past decade. Last week, 5.2 million Americans filed unemployment claims, bringing the total to 22 million in the four weeks since President Trump declared a national emergency.

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