European stocks steadier as ECB bazooka targets virus

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European stock markets were steadier Thursday after the European Central Bank stepped up its stimulus action to combat the huge economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

The dollar, seen as a safe haven investment, was in demand as people scramble for cash to pay debts or stash away.

Elsewhere, the pound was stuck around its lowest levels since the mid-1980s, while Asian stock markets closed lower.

Oil prices rebounded, but the gains did little to overturn massive losses Wednesday, which saw WTI lose around a quarter of its value.

Oil markets have been hammered by collapsing demand as the virus prompts sweeping travel restrictions and business closures combined with a a price war between key producers Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Approaching the half-way mark, the Frankfurt, London and Paris stock markets dropped but Madrid and Milan rose as investors eyed the European Central Bank’s $820-billion plan to stem the economic damage from the COVID-19 crisis.

Investors have seen “the European Central Bank calm markets, at least for now, with their stimulus package”, Scope Markets analyst James Hughes told media.

The so-called Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme comes six days after the ECB had already unveiled a big-bank stimulus package that failed to calm nervous markets, piling pressure on the bank to open the cash floodgates.

The vast scheme to buy government and corporate bonds will be concluded only once the central bank judges that the coronavirus COVID-19 crisis phase is over, but in any case not before the end of 2020, the ECB said.

– ‘Utterly uncharted territory’ –

“The fact that the ECB are buying government and corporate debt of risky economies such as Greece and Italy has helped” investor sentiment, added Hughes.

“It’s the calm that this has created in bond markets which has helped to stabilise the stock markets, at least for now.

“However I would not rule out these gains being wiped out later in the session or tomorrow – and that’s likely to do with the fact that this is utterly uncharted territory.”

The dollar surged in value as the ECB plan failed to instil optimism in traders who fear that the world is heading for a virus-fuelled economic catastrophe.

After announcing the move, ECB boss Christine Lagarde tweeted that “extraordinary times require extraordinary action. There are no limits to our commitment to the euro”.

Markets.com analyst Neil Wilson said the ECB action “looks more like a bazooka than anything they’ve done thus far”.

“Christine Lagarde and co knew they had to step it up and have,” he added.

Asia stocks initially climbed on the ECB’s midnight announcement but soon tumbled as investors contemplate months of economic hardship.

Countries around the world are in lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has now infected more than 200,000 people and killed 9,000.

The ECB’s bazooka was the latest in a string of measures by central banks and governments aimed at supporting the global economy, which have amounted to almost $2 trillion.

There was another day of Wall Street carnage on Wednesday, with the Dow ending down more than six percent and below 20,000 for the first time since 2017.

London – FTSE 100: DOWN 1.4 percent at 5,008.33 points

Frankfurt – DAX 30: DOWN 0.7 percent at 8,380.97

Paris – CAC 40: DOWN 0.4 percent at 3,738.37

Madrid – IBEX 35: UP 0.1 percent at 6,283.40

Milan – FTSE MIB: UP 2.5 percent at 15,499.82

EURO STOXX 50: DOWN 0.6 percent at 2,371.29

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: DOWN 1.0 percent at 16,552.83 (close)

Hong Kong – Hang Seng: DOWN 3.3 percent at 22,548.65

Shanghai – Composite: DOWN 1.4 percent at 2,691.71

New York – Dow: DOWN 6.3 percent at 19,898.92 (close)

Brent North Sea crude: UP 5.8 percent at $26.32 per barrel

West Texas Intermediate: UP 11.7 percent at $22.76

Dollar/yen: DOWN at 108.94 yen from 109.09 yen at 2100 GMT

Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.0827 from $1.0991

Pound/dollar: DOWN at $1.1573 from $1.1629

Euro/pound: DOWN at 93.57 pence from 93.97 pence