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Dow surges as Congress readies coronavirus aid package

Dow hits its largest-ever point gain at the end of Tuesday trading.

NEW YORK — Stocks shot up on Wall Street Tuesday and joined a worldwide rally as optimism rose, for one day at least, that government officials and central banks are unleashing enough aid to ease the economic pain caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Dow surged to 2,000 points, its biggest-ever point gain, as Congress moved closer to passing a coronavirus aid package.

The S&P 500 rose more than 7% higher, and the Dow jumped nearly 1,500 points in morning trading as a wave of buying interrupted what has been a brutal month of nearly nonstop selling. Despite the rally, investors were far from saying markets have hit bottom. Rallies nearly as big as this have punctuated the last few weeks, and none lasted more than a day.

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Tuesday's optimism was born in part out of signs that Congress and White House officials may reach an agreement soon on nearly $2 trillion in aid for the economy, though some issues remain. Investors have been frustrated waiting for the U.S. government to do what it can to help the economy, which is shutting down by the day. The Federal Reserve is doing nearly all it can, and it launched its latest round of extraordinary aid Monday.

The buying circled the world. South Korean stocks surged 8.6%, Germany’s market jumped 7.3% and Treasury yields rose in a sign that investors are feeling less fearful. Even crude oil, which has more than halved this year, rose.

“I don't think there's any more confidence in the fundamental outlook, but the fact that we're making progress is good news,” said Katie Nixon, chief investment officer at Northern Trust Wealth Management. “It’s sort of like, keep the patient alive in the emergency room so you can provide some treatment options.”

The market has seen rebounds like this before, only for them to wash out immediately. Since the market began selling off on Feb. 20, the S&P 500 has had six days where it’s risen, and all but one of them were big gains of more than 4%. After every one of them, stocks fell again the next day.

Ultimately, investors say they need to see the number of new infections peak before markets can find a floor. The increasing spread is forcing companies to park airplanes, shut hotels and close restaurants to dine-in customers. Altogether, estimates suggest at least 10% of the U.S. economy is shutting down, according to Rob Sharpe, head of investments and group chief investment officer at T. Rowe Price.

The S&P 500 was up 7.6%, as of 1 p.m. Eastern time. If it stays that high, it would be the fifth-best day in the last 50 years. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 1,512 points, or 8.1%, to 20,113 and the Nasdaq was up 5.8%.

Economists are topping each other’s dire forecasts for how much the economy will shrink this spring due to the closures of businesses, and a growing number say a recession seems inevitable.

To support the economy while health experts work to corral the virus, the Federal Reserve on Monday pledged to buy as many Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities as it takes to keep lending markets working smoothly.

Investors are waiting for Congress and the White House to also do what they can. They debated through the weekend and Monday on a plan to send cash to households and help support the hard-hit travel industry, among other things. After negotiations dragged through the night, a Senate vote could come later Tuesday.

That helped travel-related stocks surge to the market's biggest gains. Norwegian Cruise Lines was up more than 44%. MGM Resorts jumped nearly 39%. American Airlines Group was up more than 35%. All, though, remain 60% or more below where they were last month.

Governments and central banks in other countries around the world are also unveiling unprecedented levels of support for their economies in an attempt to limit the scale of the upcoming virus-related slump. Germany, a bastion of budgetary discipline, also approved a big fiscal boost.

Markets rose even as more dismal data came in about the global economy. In the United States, a preliminary reading on business activity in March showed the steepest contraction on record, going back to 2009. Reports were also gloomy for Europe.

“Everyone was prepared for a set of shockers, and that is precisely what we got, but they are not a surprise,” said Chris Beauchamp, chief market analyst at IG. “It is at times like this that the market’s propensity to look forward is demonstrated most effectively.”

More dour data is nearly assuredly on the way. On Thursday, economists expect a report to show that 725,000 Americans applied for jobless claims amid a wave of layoffs. Some say the number will be way beyond 1 million and far surpass the prior record of 695,000 set in 1982.

Analysts, meanwhile, are slashing their expectations for corporate profits, which are the lifeblood of the stock market. Credit Suisse cut its earnings forecast for S&P 500 companies this year by nearly a quarter and said this downturn could be steeper than the 2008 financial crisis, both for the contraction and for the ensuing recovery.

Helping to lift sentiment in markets is news from China that it is preparing to lift the lockdown in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, and from Italy reporting a reduction in the number of new cases and coronavirus-related deaths.

“It's still early days, of course — perhaps investors can start to envisage life beyond the coronavirus,” said Craig Erlam, senior market analyst at OANDA Europe. “That could make stocks look a little more attractive, although anyone jumping back in now will need to have nerves of steel.”

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. Those with mild illness recover in about two weeks. Severe illness including pneumonia can occur, especially in the elderly and people with existing health problems. Recovery could take six weeks in such cases.