Hong Kong, Tokyo stocks fall along with most of Asia’s markets as investors weigh destruction of coronavirus pandemic

·6 min read

Hong Kong and most other Asia-Pacific stock markets fell Thursday, as jittery investors took profits after two days of run-ups and worries grew about the economic and human toll of the coronavirus pandemic.

Singapore’s gross domestic product for the first quarter fell far more than expected. It was the first Asian economy to publish GDP data, and shows what others can expect as the outbreak of coronavirus hits economic activity.

Meanwhile, Japan’s planned stimulus package could lead to a currency free fall eventually, its policymakers fear.

Benchmarks fell in both Tokyo and Singapore, which on Thursday unveiled a US$33.7 billion package to try to deal with its coronavirus challenge.

Meanwhile, with about one-third of the world’s population under lockdown, the US Senate passed the US$2 trillion stimulus bill, sending it to the US House for approval. President Donald Trump has said he will sign it “immediately.

The package – far bigger than the US$800 billion thrown at the financial crisis in 2009 – aims to provide a lifeline to keep American workers and businesses afloat during the health catastrophe. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it a “wartime level of investment into our nation.”

But global investors worry that the “kitchen sink” so far thrown at the virus by governments and their central banks isn’t enough.

The Hang Seng Index closed down 0.7 per cent.

On Wednesday, it posted its first back-to-back gain in more than five weeks. But analysts expect volatility will continue and that a bottom for stock prices has not been reached.

Profit taking and sector switching were behind Thursday’s decline in Hong Kong, said Alan Li, portfolio manager at Atta Capital.

“Such a rapid rebound is likely finished,” Li said of the region’s two days of gains. “The progress of further recovery depends on the effect of quarantine policies against the virus spread.”

A paramedic in protective gear stands outside the Alvaro Cunqueiro hospital in Vigo, northwestern Spain. As the global death toll soared past 20,000, Spain joined Italy in seeing its number of fatalities overtake China. Photo: Agence France-Presse
A paramedic in protective gear stands outside the Alvaro Cunqueiro hospital in Vigo, northwestern Spain. As the global death toll soared past 20,000, Spain joined Italy in seeing its number of fatalities overtake China. Photo: Agence France-Presse

The Shanghai Composite Index finished down 0.6 per cent. (For in-depth markets coverage, sign up for the Stocks Blog newsletter to be delivered to you via email each trading day.)

China – the original epicentre of the outbreak – has the only major stock markets that are not in bear territory. It is returning to something akin to normalcy, with factories firing back up, after unprecedented lockdowns to reduce the spread of the virus.

Race for safety in Chinese utilities stocks may bode ill for wider market, history suggests

“Ultimately, all roads lead back to the fact investors need conclusive evidence of coronavirus infection curves flattening, bringing an end to lockdowns in sight before pressing that buy button with some conviction,” said Stephen Innes, chief global market strategist at currency trading platform AxiCorp.

“Sure, the US Congress has agreed on a stimulus package worth more than US$2 trillion, supporting oil prices and broader markets. While this is good news, it’s impossible to gauge the ultimate economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic for weeks, possibly months, and until that point, the sustainability of any rally in oil or equity markets is questionable ... The current high level of volatility will likely extend,” he added.

The global death toll topped 20,000, with Spain reporting 3,434 deaths, surpassing the toll in China. But in one good piece of news, infection rates declined for a fourth day in Italy, which has seen the most deaths in the world, at more than 7,500.

The US, where California and New York are among states in lockdown, is only at the start of its wave of coronavirus infections, as governors warn hospitals will not be able to handle the expected spike in patients.

US hospitals are reporting a shortage of protective gear, such as surgical masks and gowns, as well as ventilators, which may be rationed according to survival likelihood, putting those who are obese, elderly, or with heart or lung problems, for example, at risk of not getting assigned the potentially life-saving devices. “It’s apocalyptic,” a doctor was quoted by The New York Times as saying of the situation unfolding at one New York City hospital.

Meanwhile, Tokyo’s Nikkei 225, which jumped 8 per cent on Wednesday, closed down 4.5 per cent.

Japan’s planned US$137 billion stimulus package over the coronavirus could lead to a currency free-fall eventually, policymakers fear.

Finance ministry officials say the government will be forced to issue more bonds to fund stimulus measures, which is adding to an already bloated public debt, Reuters reports.

Some officials warn that further spending could strain the industrial world’s heaviest debt burden, more than twice the size of its 551 trillion yen economy, and cause a run on Japanese assets and erode the yen’s value in the long-run.

“A strong yen is a problem, but now we’re more worried about a weakening of the yen. If we do something wrong [in managing our finances], that could cause a yen free fall,” a senior finance ministry official told Reuters. “If we end up issuing huge amounts of debt, market sentiment could change abruptly. That would be problematic,” he said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Seoul’s Kospi closed down 1 per cent, after its 5.9 per cent jump on Wednesday. The tech-heavy Kosdaq, which shot up 5.3 per cent on Wednesday, rose 2.2 per cent.

Australia’s S&P/ASX200, closed up 2.3 per cent, after its 5.5 per cent increase on Wednesday.

New Zealand’s S&P/NZX50, which shot up 7.2 per cent on Tuesday and rose 4 per cent on Wednesday, jumped 4 per cent.

Meanwhile, Singapore’s Straits Times Index fell 1 per cent.

Singapore’s gross domestic product fell an annualised 10.6 per cent in the first quarter, compared to the previous three months. It is far worse than the average forecast of a 8.2 per cent decline, by economists surveyed by Bloomberg, and the biggest contraction since 2010.

When compared to a year ago, the economy was down 2.2 per cent in the biggest drop since the 2009 financial crisis.

“As the global Covid-19 situation is still evolving rapidly, there remains a significant degree of uncertainty over the severity and duration of the global outbreak, and the trajectory of the global economic recovery once the outbreak has been contained,” the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) said in a statement. “The balance of risks, however, is tilted to the downside.”

The Singapore government now expects the economy to contract up to 4 per cent in 2020, worse than previous predictions of an up to 1.5 per cent fall.

MTI said it expects worsening impacts from the coronavirus outbreak – like the spread to more countries, Singapore’s tightened border controls and safe-distancing measures – to hit retail, food and drink sectors.

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