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Futures tumble in start to second quarter as coronavirus crisis worsens

(Reuters) – U.S. stock index futures sank on Wednesday, as stark predictions of a rise in the U.S. death toll and worsening economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic led investors to ditch equities for safe-haven assets.

FILE PHOTO: A trader wears a face mask on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) following traders testing positive for Coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New York, U.S., March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The S&P 500 .SPX and Dow Jones .DJI indexes ended Tuesday with their worst opening quarters in history as efforts to contain the virus resulted in store closures, massive staff furloughs and a virtual halt in business activity.

S&P 500 firms are down about $5.6 trillion in market value so far this year, despite an unprecedented round of fiscal and monetary stimulus that helped equity markets claw back some of the sharp declines last week.

“Talk of a bottom in equity markets still seems remarkably premature given the continued increase in infection and death rates across Europe and the United States,” said Michael Hewson, chief market analyst at CMC Markets in London.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump warned Americans of a “very, very painful” two weeks ahead, with White House health officials modeling an enormous jump in virus-related deaths even with strict social distancing measures.

With the quarterly earnings season set to begin in two weeks, investors fear reports of more production cuts as demand across sectors including airlines, autos, luxury goods and industrials evaporates, raising the risk of corporate defaults.

Companies listed on the S&P 500 are expected to enter an earnings recession in 2020, with declines in profit projected in the first and second quarters, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.

Annual earnings are expected to fall 2{3c4481f38fc19dde56b7b1f4329b509c88239ba5565146922180ec5012de023f}, the first decline since 2009. In the second quarter alone, profits at S&P 500 firms are projected to slide 9.6{3c4481f38fc19dde56b7b1f4329b509c88239ba5565146922180ec5012de023f}.

Wall Street’s fear gauge, the CBOE volatility index , remains near levels last seen during the 2008 financial crisis, with investors flocking to the perceived safety of gold XAU= and U.S. Treasuries.

Interest-rate sensitive Citigroup Inc (C.N), JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N) and Goldman Sachs (GS.N) fell more than 3{3c4481f38fc19dde56b7b1f4329b509c88239ba5565146922180ec5012de023f} in premarket trading.

Meanwhile, Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank President Loretta Mester said U.S. economic activity was likely to be “very bad” in the first half of 2020 and the unemployment rate could rise above 10{3c4481f38fc19dde56b7b1f4329b509c88239ba5565146922180ec5012de023f}.

The U.S. private payrolls report due later in the day is expected to show a decline of 150,000 jobs in March after 183,000 additions in February.

At 06:55 a.m. EDT, Dow e-minis 1YMcv1 were down 704 points, or 3.24{3c4481f38fc19dde56b7b1f4329b509c88239ba5565146922180ec5012de023f}, S&P 500 e-minis EScv1 were down 84.5 points, or 3.29{3c4481f38fc19dde56b7b1f4329b509c88239ba5565146922180ec5012de023f} and Nasdaq 100 e-minis NQcv1 were down 221.75 points, or 2.85{3c4481f38fc19dde56b7b1f4329b509c88239ba5565146922180ec5012de023f}.

Reporting by Uday Sampath and Medha Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta and Sagarika Jaisinghani

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