By Herbert Lash
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Global equity markets tumbled on Thursday as the death toll from China's coronavirus outbreak hit 170, pummelling oil prices and inverting a closely watched bond indicator as investors worried about the world's second-largest economy.
Gold gained along with the safe-haven Japanese yen and Swiss franc, as the number of people infected by the virus in a fast-spreading health crisis surpassed 8,100 people globally, more than the total from the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic.
The World Health Organization declared a global emergency as people infected by the virus spread to 18 countries.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said the organisation's greatest worry is the potential for the outbreak to spread to countries with weaker health systems.
The International Monetary Fund said it was too soon to quantify the potential economic impact of the virus, which has halted tourism and commerce throughout China.
Damage to China's economy is still hard to assess, but Wall Street economists see slower growth. Fitch Solutions said it maintains its real GDP growth forecast for China at 5.9% for 2020, but the impact of the virus could reduce that to 5.4%.
Major equity indexes slid across the globe, with the declines sharper in Asia and Europe than on Wall Street, where late in the session stocks turned positive.
Fading risk appetite sent yields on U.S. Treasuries down to their lowest in more than three months. A closely watched part of the yield curve briefly inverted.
Investors, who are confused about the strength of the U.S. economy, are buying on the dip as alternatives to owning stocks does not seem attractive, said Rick Meckler, a partner at Cherry Lane Investments in New Vernon, New Jersey.
"This is a market where people are very nervous," he said. "There's fear about committing new capital to this market given how far it's come, but there's even a greater fear on missing out on the gains."
MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan <.MIAPJ0000PUS> closed 2.29% lower, while emerging market stocks lost 2.20%.
Latin American assets have been hit hard by expected demand disruptions in China, one of the region's largest export destinations.
The pan-European STOXX 600 index <.STOXX> lost 1.01% while MSCI's gauge of stocks across the globe but also cut losses late in the session to <.MIWD00000PUS> shed 0.33%. More than half of the world index is weighted to U.S. stocks.
Shares in London <.FTSE> fell 1.36%, extending losses as the pound climbed against the dollar after the Bank of England kept interest rates unchanged.
Disappointing earnings in Europe weighed on blue-chips, adding to the gloom. Royal Dutch Shell <RDSa.L> fell 4.4% after fourth-quarter profit halved to its lowest in more than three years.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average <.DJI> rose 124.99 points, or 0.43%, to 28,859.44. The S&P 500 <.SPX> gained 10.26 points, or 0.31%, to 3,283.66 and the Nasdaq Composite <.IXIC> added 23.77 points, or 0.26%, to 9,298.93.
The benchmark 10-year Treasury note <US10YT=RR> rose 3/32 in price to yield 1.5856%. The yield curve between three-month bills and 10-year notes inverted for the second time this week, a bearish economic signal.
Yields on top-rated, tax-exempt U.S. municipal bonds hit record lows of 1.15% for 10-year debt and 1.80% on 30-year debt, according to Municipal Market Data.
German government bond yields fell sharply, with 10-year German bund yields dropping to a three-month low of -0.445%.
The dollar fell on news the U.S. economy posted its slowest annual growth in three years in 2019 and personal consumption weakened dramatically. The dollar index <.DXY> fell 0.13% after it had gained 0.65% in the last two weeks as investors sold off risk assets.
Still, coronavirus fears persisted, boosting the Japanese yen <JPY=> and Swiss franc <CHF=>.
The euro <EUR=> was up 0.21% to $1.1032. The yen strengthened 0.05% at 108.96 per dollar.
Gold prices rose, with U.S. gold futures <GCv1> settling up 0.8% at $1,583.50 an ounce.
Oil prices fell more than 2% to the lowest in three months on virus-related worries, while traders also considered the possibility of an early meeting or the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Brent crude <LCOc1> lost $1.52 to settle at $58.29 a barrel, while U.S. crude <CLc1> fell $1.19 to settle at $52.14 a barrel.
(Additional reporting by Tom Wilson in London, Tom Westbrook in Singapore, Swati Pandey in Sydney; Editing by Timothy Heritage, David Gregorio and Diane Craft)