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* NY Fed Empire State manufacturing index hits record low
* BofA, Citigroup fall as profit slumps
* J.C. Penney sinks on report it is considering bankruptcy
* Retail sales collapse in March
* Indexes down: Dow 2.21%, S&P 2.34%, Nasdaq 1.54% (Updates to early afternoon)
By Medha Singh
April 15 (Reuters) - The S&P 500 recoiled from a four-week high on Wednesday, as dire forecasts for the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression were strengthened by a crash in business activity and dismal first-quarter earnings reports.
The S&P energy sector slumped 6.5% and was on track for its worst day in nearly three weeks as oil prices sank after reports suggested persistent oversupply and collapsing global demand.
The banking subsector fell 5.5%, as the biggest U.S. lenders set aside billions of dollars to prepare for an expected flood of loan defaults as the coronavirus pandemic all but halted business activity. The flight from risky assets also hit Treasury yields.
Bank of America and Citigroup Inc fell between 3.0% and 6.3% as they joined JPMorgan Chase & Co and Wells Fargo & Co in reporting a slump in first-quarter profits.
In the latest evidence of economic damage from the outbreak, U.S. retail sales plunged 8.7% in March, manufacturing output dropped by the most in over 74 years and a survey showed manufacturing activity in New York state plunged in April to its lowest in the series’ history.
“Wall Street right now has this big tug-of-war between hope and reality,” said Larry Adam, chief investment officer at Raymond James in Baltimore, Maryland.
“We’re talking about hope we get beyond COVID-19, but in the meantime we get the reality of some of these numbers that highlight some concerns about the consumer.”
Analysts expect earnings for S&P 500 firms to slide 12.8% in the first quarter, while the International Monetary Fund has predicted the global economy would this year witness its sharpest slump since the 1930s.
The benchmark S&P 500 has climbed about 26% from its March trough, lifted by a raft of U.S. monetary and fiscal stimulus and on early signs that coronavirus cases were peaking in some hotspots, but the index is still down about 18% from its record high.
At 12:56 p.m. ET, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 530.24 points, or 2.21%, at 23,419.52 and the S&P 500 was down 66.52 points, or 2.34%, at 2,779.54. The Nasdaq Composite was down 130.90 points, or 1.54%, at 8,384.85.
The CBOE volatility index rose to 42.30 after closing Tuesday at its lowest level since March 5. The S&P tech sector fell 2.1% and was the biggest drag on the benchmark index.
J.C. Penney Co Inc slumped 26.3% as sources said the retailer was exploring filing for bankruptcy protection after the virus outbreak upended its turnaround plans.
The biggest U.S. health insurer UnitedHealth Group Inc rose 4.1% as it maintained its 2020 profit outlook at a time when major companies have withdrawn forecasts due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Declining issues outnumbered advancers for a 7.45-to-1 ratio on the NYSE and a 4.68-to-1 ratio on the Nasdaq.
The S&P index recorded six new 52-week highs and one new low, while the Nasdaq recorded 16 new highs and 21 new lows. (Reporting by Medha Singh and Akanksha Rana in Bengaluru; Editing by Sagarika Jaisinghani and Shounak Dasgupta)