Oil was also in free-fall because of a continuing glut of supply. The West Texas Intermediate crude contract, traded in New York, was down 30 cents to $43.58 US a barrel and Western Canada Select, a common Canadian contract, had slipped below $30 US to $29.38 a barrel. That's the cheapest price we've seen for Canadian oil since February 2009, when the global economy was in the midst of a devastating recession.
The S&P/TSX index was up 21 points at midday to 17884. The Canadian dollar edged upward to 78.34 US cents.
The Dow Jones industrials fell 109 points to 17,867 and the S&P 500 lost 7 points to 2074. The Nasdaq was down 2 at 4928.
The Federal Reserve starts its two-day meeting on interest rates today. Traders will be mainly watching whether the central bank removes the reference to being "patient" about hiking rates from near zero, and instead inserts language about the need to gradually raise rates.
In Mumbai, IMF head Christine Lagarde warned emerging economies about a potential hit when the Fed raises rates.
The risk for developing economies is that capital could move rapidly out of their markets to seek out higher U.S. rates and a strong U.S. dollar.
“We are perhaps approaching the point where, for the first time since 2006, the United States will raise short term interest rates later this year,” Lagarde said. “Even if this process is well managed, the likely volatility in financial markets could give rise to potential stability risks.”
If Fed signals rate rise, watch the loonie
Signs that the Fed is prepared to raise rates, perhaps in June, could drag down the loonie, according to Rahim Madhavji, a foreign exchange analyst with Knightsbridge FX.
“A clear indication by the Fed that interest rate hikes are happening in June should boost the US dollar and hammer the Canadian dollar. Dithering by the FED should be a positive for the loonie,” he wrote in a note to investors today.
The Bank of Canada cut its key interest rate in January in an effort to boost the economy in the face of low oil prices.
In North America, there is fear that stocks will be hurt because of decreased credit under higher rates.
Toronto investors also absorbed news that manufacturing sales in Canada fell 1.7 per cent in January, due to a sharp drop in sales of petroleum and coal products.
Diverging scenarios for oil
Falling oil knocked back the energy sector by 1.1 per cent.
Oil seemed to stabilize around the $50 point in February, half its value a year earlier. But news that storage tanks are filling up with oil, while North American producers have failed to cut production, is driving the price lower.
There are divergent views on where oil will go for the rest of the year – from as low as $20 to a bounce upwards if OPEC decides to cut production.