Asian markets sink as pandemic deaths soar

By: AFP      Published: 12:29 PM, 23 Mar, 2020
Asian markets sink as pandemic deaths soar

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 14,700, 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 was down 4.4 percent, Sydney dropped 5.6 percent, Shanghai shed 2.3 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 heayweight 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.

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 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.

'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 was down three percent, but West Texas Intermediate was up 0.8 percent. The commodity has faced increased volatility in recent weeks not only because of the coronavirus pandemic, but also because of a price war between top producers Saudi Arabia and Russia.

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