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Dow tumbles nearly 1,000 points again, because stocks can’t figure out coronavirus

File photo (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
File photo (AP Photo/Richard Drew) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

(CNN) – US stocks had another extremely volatile day on Thursday, as investors couldn't seem to make up their minds about the impact of the global coronavirus outbreak.

The Dow closed down 970 points, or 3.6%, marking its fifth-worst single-day point drop on record. The index was down nearly 1,148 points at its lowest point.

Thursday's close comes after the Dow had two 1,000-point gains and an 800-point loss earlier this week.

The S&P 500 fell 3.4% and the Nasdaq Composite closed down 3.1%.

All three indexes dropped into correction territory last week, having fallen more than 10% below their peaks. After bouncing up and down throughout Thursday, the stock benchmarks finished more than 10% below their highs.

This roller coaster of a week has given investors whiplash. The Dow posted two of its best days in history in terms of points gained on Monday and Wednesday, and one of its worst point losses Tuesday. That has unnerved many people with stock-heavy 401(k)s, which have been whipsawed.

The wild swings stem from mixed signals about the economy: The coronavirus outbreak threatens to seriously dent global growth. But how long will the downturn last, and how will it affect the United States?

The Fed shocked Wall Street Tuesday with an emergency rate cut to give businesses and households a boost, but what message does that send about America's economic resilience.

If coronavirus keeps people at home, consumer spending could fall. Travel and leisure companies are beginning to see the coronavirus impact. Consumer spending is crucial to US GDP growth, so people staying at home could be a problem for the economy.

If manufacturers can't get parts shipped from overseas, they won't be able to make all their products, and if factory workers are sick, that will slow down production.

That is why first quarter earnings could be a mess. China's economy could post its first quarterly decline in four decades. World economic growth could be halved in 2020.

None of that is good news for stocks.

"Panic mode is clearly evident," said Lukman Otunuga, senior research analyst at FXTM, in a note to investors Thursday. "We still don't know the full impact on corporate earnings for 2020 and US companies will be lucky if they achieve zero earnings growth."

Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden won sweeping primary victories across the country Tuesday, which assuaged investor worries about a White House under the command of Senator Bernie Sanders. That said,shifting political tides could also mean Wall Street is about to lose its cheerleader-in-chief President Donald Trump?

CNN Business' Fear and Greed Index has been stuck in "Extreme Fear" for more than a week. The VIX volatility index soared nearly 30% Thursday, and investors plowed money into safe-haven assets like gold and US Treasury bonds.

Gold settled up 1.5% at $1,666.40 an ounce, and the 10-year Treasury yield fell below 0.91%, reaching a new all-time low. The closely watched bond yield dropped below 1% for the first time on Tuesday.

The Japanese yen, also a safe-haven in times of trouble, hit a six-month high against the US dollar.