Historic collapse in oil prices sends U.S. stocks reeling, with Dow losing nearly 600 points

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 more than 595 points, 2.5%, to finish the day at 23,646.60. The broader Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 51 points, or 1.8%, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq slid 89 points, or roughly 1%.

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 big names such as Coca-Cola, Lockheed Martin, AT&T, Eli Lillyand Co., American Express and Verizon reporting earnings 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 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 coronavirus public health orders and travel almost totally scrapped, 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 in the coming months. 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 few people are driving cars and flying. That has created a glut, leading to a sell-off that drives down prices. Saudi Arabian crude arriving in the U.S. cannot be unloaded from tankers—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-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes.

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 cost less than $2 a gallon, on average.

Monday’s pullback followed two big weeks of gains for stocks on optimism that governments and scientists were making gains 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 gains 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 Donald Trump declared a national emergency. The United States has not seen this level of job loss since the Great Depression.

Analysts predicted another solid week as investors appear to turn their attention to 2021 and a potential recovery.

“The Street already knows 2020 will be bad, so the focus has now shifted to 2021 expectations, in which all sectors show positive earnings growth,” said Sam Stovall of CFRA Research. “. . . Most sector growth is currently in double digits, and even energy is expected to rise from the ashes. Finally, share prices should be buoyed by further talk of an eventual reopening of the economy.”

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