Asian markets sink as pandemic deaths soar

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Asian markets were hammered on Monday despite massive economic stimulus efforts worldwide, with investors spooked by the relentless march of the coronavirus pandemic.

The negative mood was fuelled by the failure of US lawmakers to agree on a trillion-dollar emergency package to help the reeling American economy.

The global death toll from the virus has surged past 14,400, with nearly a billion people confined and non-essential businesses shut in dozens of countries and growing fears about a recession.

Wellington nosedived 7.6 percent as New Zealand announced a four-week lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The Hang Seng Index in Hong Kong ended the day down 4.9 percent, Sydney dropped 5.6 percent, Shanghai shed 3.1 percent and Taiwan was off by 3.7 percent.

Singapore tanked 7.5 percent, Jakarta lost 3.8 percent, and Seoul was down 5.5 percent.

Tokyo was the exception, closing two percent higher as a cheaper yen against the dollar boosted Japanese markets.

Nikkei heavyweight SoftBank Group said it would sell up to $41 billion in assets to finance a stock buyback, reduce debt and increase its cash reserves, boosting its share price by more than 18 percent in the last hour of trade.

The grim trend continued when European markets opened. In early trade, London tumbled 4.8 percent, Frankfurt lost 4.6 percent and Paris was down 4.4 percent.

Economists and analysts are now worried about how deep the impact of the pandemic could be on the global economy, with social distancing measures and lockdowns dealing serious blows to many industries.

Airlines have been hit particularly hard, with isolation measures shutting down routes and grounding fleets worldwide.

Long-haul giant Emirates announced a two-week suspension of all its passenger flights, following a UAE government directive.

Singapore Airlines, meanwhile, said it would ground most of its fleet until the end of April. The carrier said it was facing the greatest challenge in its existence.

European plane maker Airbus said it was cancelling its planned 2019 dividend payment and abandoning 2020 forecasts.

– ‘The fear is palpable’ –

Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase have all forecast a drop in US GDP, according to Bloomberg News.

“These rapid and unprecedented downgrades illustrate just how fast we’ve moved from a brief health scare to a full-blown global recession,” said Stephen Innes, global chief markets strategist at AxiCorp.

Constance Hunter, chief economist at KPMG, agreed, telling Bloomberg TV: “It’s a health crisis that’s started morphing into a financial crisis.”

US senators failed to agree on a trillion-dollar proposal to rescue the American economy on Sunday, as Democrats said the Republican plan failed to provide sufficient protection to millions of workers or shore up the critically under-equipped healthcare system.

The bill proposed an estimated $1.7 trillion or more in funding to cushion the blow from the pandemic for American families and thousands of shuttered or suffering businesses.

But President Donald Trump sounded a note of optimism: “I think that the Democrats want to get there, and… the Republicans want to get there.”

The failure is likely to extend the gloom on Wall Street, where the three main indexes all went into the weekend on Friday in negative territory.

“I’m presently in New York, and the fear is palpable — it’s rising and there doesn’t seem to be anyone who thinks that this virus effect is anywhere near peaking yet, particularly here in the States,” Brian Quartarolo, portfolio manager at Pilgrim Partners Asia, told Bloomberg TV.

On oil markets, Brent Crude sank 4.5 percent, and West Texas Intermediate was down 0.2 percent.

Oil has faced increased volatility in recent weeks not only because of coronavirus-fuelled worries about demand, but also because of a price war between top producers Saudi Arabia and Russia.

– Key figures around 0825 GMT –

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: UP 2.0 percent at 16,887.78 (close)

Hong Kong – Hang Seng: DOWN 4.9 percent at 21,696.13 (close)

Shanghai – Composite: DOWN 3.1 percent at 2,660.17 (close)

London – FTSE 100: DOWN 4.8 percent to 4,943.51

Dollar/yen: DOWN at 110.13 from 110.85 yen at 2230 GMT on Friday

Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.0704 from $1.0705

Pound/dollar: DOWN at $1.1617 from $1.1645

Euro/pound: UP at 92.14 pence from 91.78

Brent Crude: DOWN 4.5 percent at $25.78 per barrel

West Texas Intermediate: DOWN 0.2 percent at $22.58 per barrel

New York – Dow: DOWN 4.6 percent at 19,173.98 (close)