The declines looked likely to carry over into U.S. trading. The future contract for the S&P 500 lost 0.7%, as did the future for the Dow. The death toll from the virus rose to 170, with 7,711 people in China and elsewhere confirmed infected, as foreign evacuees from the worst-hit region in central China began returning home under close observation.
After world health officials have expressed “great concern” that the disease is starting to spread between people outside of China, Japan's Nikkei 225 index sank 1.7% to 22,977.75, while Hong Kong's Hang Seng index skidded 2.6% to 26,449.13. In Australia, the S&P ASX/200 declined 0.3% to 7,008.40. South Korea's Kospi lost 1.7% to 2,148.00.
Shares also retreated in India and Southeast Asia. Mainland Chinese markets remained closed for the Lunar New Year holiday. “With equity markets pumped to juicy levels by the relentless flow of cheap central bank money around the world, unexpected Wuhan-like events leave them acutely vulnerable to potentially aggressive corrections," Jeffrey Halley of Oanda said in a commentary.
The World Health Organization was due to meet Thursday in Geneva to consider whether to issue a global alarm that might prompt more controls on movement inside and to and from China, resulting in greater disruptions to businesses and markets.
In other news, South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co. said its operating profit for the last quarter fell 33.7% from a year earlier. But it predicted earnings will improve in 2020, driven by a gradually stabilizing computer chip market and increasing 5G smartphone sales.
Samsung, the world’s biggest producer of smartphones and semiconductors, has suffered a sharp drop in profit over the past year with an industry-wide glut forcing chip-makers to slash prices to clear out inventory.
The Bank of England was expected to issue a decision on interest rates later Thursday. Overnight, stocks lost momentum on Wall Street as investors tuned in to a news conference by Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, Powell acknowledged that there’s a risk the outbreak could slow the global economy. But stocks barely budged after the Fed announced would leave its benchmark interest rate unchanged at a low level. The move, which was widely expected, reflects the central bank’s mostly positive view of the U.S. economy.
Last year, the Fed cut its benchmark interest rate three times after having raised it four times in 2018. Powell credits those rate cuts with revitalizing the housing market, which had stumbled early last year, and offsetting some of the drag from President Donald Trump's trade war with China.
Overnight, bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury fell to 1.56% from 1.64% late Tuesday. Investors have been assessing quarterly reports from big companies. On Thursday, Coca-Cola, UPS, Amazon and Visa are scheduled to release results. Caterpillar and Exxon Mobil will report results on Friday.
In energy trading, benchmark crude oil fell gave up 96 cents to $52.37 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It lost 15 cents to settle at $53.33 a barrel on Wednesday.
Brent crude oil, the international standard, declined $1.06 cents to $57.85 per barrel. It rose 30 cents to close at $59.81 a barrel overnight. Gold rose $11.60 cents to $1,582.00 per ounce. Silver rose 24 cents to $17.73 per ounce and copper fell 3 cents to $2.55 per pound.
The dollar fell to 108.83 Japanese yen from 108.98 yen on Wednesday. The euro strengthened to $1.1019 from $1.1008.