Global stocks plunge on pandemic worries as investors scurry for safety

In a photo taken on Aug 19, 2015, a Thai investor reads a newspaper in front of an electronic board displaying live market data at a stock broker's office in Bangkok.
In a photo taken on Aug 19, 2015, a Thai investor reads a newspaper in front of an electronic board displaying live market data at a stock broker's office in Bangkok.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - Global share markets and oil sank on Monday (Feb 24), safe-haven gold surged and US Treasury yields reached their lowest since mid-2016, as coronavirus cases spread outside China, darkening the outlook for world growth.

CNBC reported that as of 5am ET, Dow Jones Industrial Average futures pointed to an implied opening plunge of 700 points on Monday.

Europe took a beating early on, with Italy plunging more than 4 per cent after a spike in cases of the virus left parts of the country’s industrial north in virtual lockdown. That put Milan on course for its worst day since 2016.

Frankfurt and Paris were both down more than 3 per cent and London’s FTSE dropped 2.5 per cent, meaning at least US$350 billion had been wiped off the region’ market value.

The flight to safety was just as resounding. Gold surged 2.5 per cent to a seven-year high of US$1,680 an ounce, taking its gains for the year past 10 per cent.

Bonds rallied, too. Ten-year US Treasury yields dropped to 1.401 per cent, their lowest since July 2016. The 30-year Treasury touched a record low at 1.855 per cent and German yields dropped to -0.475 per cent, their lowest in more than four months.

“Everybody sees that this could be another leg down for the economy, and we were already in quite a fragile state to begin with,” said Rabobank’s head of macro strategy, Elwin de Groot. “It could be another step towards a recession in more countries.”

South Korea bore the brunt of losses in Asia with the Kospi index slumping 3.9 per cent after the government declared a high alert. The number of infections jumped to 763 and deaths rose to seven.

Australia’s benchmark index slid 2.3 per cent and New Zealand fell about 1.8 per cent. China’s blue-chip CSI300 index closed down 0.4 per cent.

Singapore's Straits Times Index closed down 38.83 points or 1.2 per cent to 3,142.20.

That left MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan at its lowest since early February. Japanese markets were closed for a public holiday.

The virus has now killed 2,592 people in China, which has reported 77,150 cases, and spread to some 28 other countries and territories, with a death toll outside of China around two dozen, according to a Reuters tally.

Iran, which announced its first infections last week, said it had confirmed 43 cases and eight deaths, with most of the infections in the holy city of Qom. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan imposed travel and immigration restrictions on the Islamic Republic.

“There is lots of bad news on the coronavirus front with the total number of new cases still rising,” AMP chief economist Shane Oliver wrote in a note. “Of course, there is much uncertainty about the case data. New cases outside China still look to be trending up.”

FUTURES GLOOM

As investors wagered central banks would step in with policy stimulus to support economic growth, US fed fund futures signalled more rate cuts later this year and a near 20 per cent chance of a cut next month.

The US dollar dipped to 111.34 against the Japanese yen, but against the rest of the world it was showing its safe-haven qualities.

The euro fell towards US$1.08 and the Australian dollar, often traded as a proxy for China risk, tumbled to an 11-year low of US$0.6585.

Korea’s won was last down 1 per cent at 1,219.06 after falling to its weakest since August 2019. Emerging-market currencies from Mexico’s peso and Turkey’s lira to Poland’s zloty and Russia’s rouble were in the red.

In commodity markets, Brent crude fell 3.5 per cent, or US$2.1, to US$56.35 a barrel. US crude dropped 3 per cent, or US$1.64, to US$51.74 a barrel. Among the main industrial metals, copper fell 1.4 per cent and zinc was down 2.5 per cent.