Investors prepare for more market swings as virus spreads in the U.S.

(Reuters) - With one of Wall Street’s wildest weeks in recent memory now in the history books, investors are bracing for more uncertainty and big market swings ahead.

FILE PHOTO: Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) after the opening bell of the trading session in New York, U.S., March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Overwhelmingly, caution remains the watchword for investors and analysts reeling from a week that saw all three U.S. exchanges confirm bear markets, oil prices plummet to multiyear lows and wild fluctuations in bond yields and currencies. [.N]

Investors still have little clarity on the possible trajectory of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, the effectiveness of the government response and the eventual damage the virus will cause to the nation’s economy and individual companies.

Many are awaiting the start of trading in U.S. stock futures on Sunday night, a session that has proven volatile in recent weeks.

“Right now, we view investing in the current environment using the hackneyed phrase of ‘catching a falling knife,’” said Richard Bernstein, chief executive of Richard Bernstein Advisors in a note to investors and conference call. “We see no need to rush into markets.”

Bernstein said the rush into U.S. government bonds sparked by recent market swings has overstretched the prices of Treasuries, which now sport yields near record lows. His portfolio holds shorter-dated U.S. debt and equities in the consumer staples and health care sectors, among others.

The White House on Saturday said it would extend a travel ban to include the United Kingdom and Ireland, a move that could further hurt oil prices and airlines already battered by a ban announced last week.

Analytics firm Oxford Economics also discouraged dip buyers, noting in a report that companies’ price-to-earnings ratios remain elevated and corporations may eventually find it difficult to service their debt at a time when leverage is near all-time highs. The firm urged investors to trim exposure to a broad variety of asset classes, including European stocks and the local currency debt of emerging markets.

They are also warning investors to brace for more alarming headlines concerning the virus’ spread in the United States.

“In the foreseeable future, and with a vaccine for the virus still nowhere in sight, it is reasonable to assume that Western containment strategies are unlikely to succeed and the peak in the incidence is at least some weeks, if not months, away,” the firm said.

Others are continuing to watch for signs of stresses across markets.

Analysts at Bank of America wrote that the Federal Reserve may announce measures on Sunday night aimed at bolstering liquidity in the commercial paper market, used by companies for short-term loans.

The measures, if taken, would be aimed at buffering the market ahead of potentially large outflows from money market funds in coming days, the Bank of America analysts wrote.

The United States has in recent days received a taste of the types of disruptions that the virus has wrought in other countries, including Italy and South Korea.

Daily routines have been upended as businesses including AMZN.O urge employees to work from home, schools and universities close, and sporting events and church services are paused across the country. In response to the run on certain items, major retailers have imposed some purchase limits.

“Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. With limited testing available, officials have recorded nearly 3,000 cases and 59 deaths in the United States.

Investors have cheered moves by the Federal Reserve to add liquidity to markets and promises of fiscal support from the U.S. government, with markets ripping higher on Friday as President Donald Trump declared a national emergency.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told “Fox News Sunday” the cost of a coronavirus aid package will likely be “significant but not huge.”

The Fed is expected to announce an interest rate cut of at least three quarters of a percentage point this week, with financial markets predicting the Fed will be forced to cut to zero by April to boost the economy.

Some investors are looking for value in the wake of the market’s big drop.

Analysts at BTIG believe the time is right to step in to some of the market’s hardest-hit areas including financial stocks, which they said could benefit from lower interest rates.

Retail investors appear to be somewhat more optimistic than their institutional counterparts, a poll by wealth management research firm Spectrem Group showed.

Fewer than 10% of investors polled by the firm earlier this month sold equities while 17% purchased stocks in the recent selloff, the poll showed.

“This infers that institutional investors are causing the market volatility rather than retail investors,” the firm said in a report.

Meanwhile, business owners saw the coronavirus as a serious threat to the economy, a survey from Wilmington Trust showed.

Thirty-six percent of the respondents in the survey, which targeted owners with businesses generating more than $5 million in revenue, said they anticipated reducing employment levels in the first half and 39% said they would cut back capital expenditures.

Additional reporting by April Joyner and Elizabeth Dilts Marshall; Writing by Ira Iosebashvili; Editing by Daniel Wallis