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Stocks fall, bond prices rise as investors seek safe ground

Stocks fell and bond prices rose sharply on Wall Street Friday amid signs that economic fallout from the viral outbreak that originated in China is hurting U.S. companies. The yield on the 30-year Treasury reached a record low as investors sought the safety of U.S. government bonds, driving their prices higher. The price of gold also rose.

New data showing manufacturing and business activity suddenly slowed this month added to investors' anxiety. News that infections are spreading added to traders' jitters. The losses had the benchmark S&P 500 index on track for its first weekly loss after two weeks of gains.

“There's a little bit more concern about how hard this is going to impact, not just Asia, but also the broad global economy,” said Adam Taback, chief investment officer for Wells Fargo Private Bank. Travel restrictions, business closures and other efforts in China aimed at containing the spread of the virus have begun to disrupt supply chains and sales prospects for Apple and other big companies.

The situation has begun to weigh on the U.S. economy. Data from IHS Markit show U.S. manufacturing and business activity slowed in February from the previous month, coming in below analysts' expectations.

Technology companies accounted for much of the selling. Chipmakers, which rely heavily on China for both sales and supply chains, were some of the worst hit. Advanced Micro Devices slid 7%, while Nvidia fell 5.6%.

Companies that depend on consumer spending, especially in travel-related industries, also fell broadly. Marriott International shed 2.7% and Carnival fell 1.8%. American Airlines dropped 3.2%. General Motors lost 2.2% and other automakers slipped as the virus hurts auto sales in China.

Investors headed for safer territory. Real estate companies and utilities held up better than the rest of the market. Bond prices rose, pushing yields lower. The price of gold, another haven for nervous investors, jumped 1.7%.

KEEPING SCORE: The S&P 500 index fell 1.2% as of 3:30 p.m. Eastern time. The Dow Jones Industrial Average slid 271 points, or 0.9%, to 28,948. The Nasdaq lost 2%. The Russell 2000 index of smaller company stocks gave up 1.1%. Asian and European markets also fell.

RUSH TO SAFETY: Treasury prices dove after a report from IHS Markit indicated U.S. business activity is contracting in February for the first time since the federal government shut down in 2013. Yields fall when prices for bonds rise, and investors are rushing for safety amid worries about how much economic damage the virus will do.

The yield on the 30-year Treasury reached a record low of 1.886%, according to Tradeweb. It was 1.98% late Thursday. The yield on the more closely followed 10-year Treasury fell to 1.46% from 1.52%. That yield, which is a benchmark for mortgages and other kinds of loans, was close to 1.90% at the start of this year.

Expectations have been building among traders that the Federal Reserve will need to cut interest rates this year to help the economy. They’re pricing in a 90% probability of at least one cut this year, up from an 85% probability a day ago and a 58% probability a month ago.

VIRUS WARNINGS: Coca-Cola is the latest big name to warn investors that the economic impact from the virus will hurt its finances. China is a big market for the company, and Coke now expects a hit of 2 cents per share to its first-quarter profit.

Universal Display, which makes LED-technology for televisions and other products, expects the virus to hurt orders in 2020. The International Air Transport Association said the virus threatens to erase $29 billion of this year’s revenue for global airlines, though mostly for Chinese carriers.

SPREADING ANXIETY: South Korea said 204 people have been infected with the virus, quadruple the number of cases it had two days earlier. More than 76,000 people have been infected globally, with most of the cases and deaths centered in China. That nation’s leadership on Friday shifted to a more cautious tone and said it has not yet reached a turning point for the virus and the situation in the hardest hit province remains grave.

GOOD HARVEST: Deere jumped 7.2% after the farm equipment maker handily beat Wall Street’s fiscal first-quarter profit forecasts. The company is coming out of an extended period in which it was bruised by the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China.

AP Business Writers Damian J. Troise and Stan Choe contribued.

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