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WORLD | 30-01-2020 13:08

Stock markets retreat as virus death toll surges

Coronavirus outbreak in China sparks worldwide concerns as death toll grows; US Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell claims virus poses new risk to global growth.

Stock markets retreated Thursday on growing concerns over the economic impact of the new coronavirus that has killed 170 people in China, according to the lastest toll.

Tech stocks and airlines were among key losers as the World Health Organisation (WHO) called an urgent meeting on whether to declare a global health emergency over the virus.

In afternoon trading, London's FTSE 100, Frankfurt's DAX 30 the Paris CAC 40 were all down more than 1.0 percent.

"With the coronavirus death toll leaping... the European markets reverted back to panic mode, quickly unravelling the rebound managed in the last couple of sessions," explained Connor Campbell, analyst at Spreadex trading group.

Traders' main focus remained the virus and increased concerns over its spread weighed heavily also on oil prices Thursday, with benchmark Brent crude sliding more than two percent.

Global threat

The WHO, which initially downplayed the severity of the disease, has warned all governments to be "on alert" as China reported 1,700 new cases of the SARS-like virus that has infected over 7,700 people and been detected in at least 15 countries.

Airlines around the world are either suspending or paring back services in and out of China following cases of human-to-human transmission outside the country, and manufacturers have also been cutting their Chinese operations.

In Asian stock markets Thursday, Taipei closed down 5.8 percent on the first day of trade since the Chinese New Year break, with Eva Airways plunging 9.9 percent and market heavyweight and key Apple supplier Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (TSMC) sliding five percent.

Fellow Apple supplier Hon Hai Precision Industry fell by the daily 10 percent limit after it declared most of its manufacturing plants in China would remain closed until February 10.

Elsewhere Thursday, Tokyo's main stocks index closed down 1.7 percent and Hong Kong ended 2.6 percent lower.

Japanese automaker Toyota said it would keep its plants in China closed until at least February 9 over concerns about the outbreak.

Systemic risks

The US Federal Reserve (Fed) held its policy interest rate steady, in a low range of 1.5 to 1.75 percent, on Wednesday but was on alert for possible contagion to the domestic and global economies.

Fed President Jerome Powell and other officials have indicated that they see that range as low enough to support faster growth and hiring. 

"There will clearly be implications at least in the near term for Chinese output and I would guess for some of their close neighbours," Powell told reporters following the Fed's policy meeting.

However, "the situation is really in its early stages and it's very uncertain about how far it will spread and what the macro-economic effects will be", he added. "We are very carefully monitoring the situation."

Investors, however, are increasingly betting that the Fed will feel compelled to cut rates later this year, likely out of concern that the US will feel the impact of a global slowdown stemming from the coronavirus. 

The chances of a cut by September’s Fed meeting have risen above 70 percent, according to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s FedWatch tool, up from roughly 40 percent just a month ago.

Still, Paul Ashworth, chief US economist at Capital Economics, stated he saw nothing in the Fed’s statement or at Powell’s news conference to make him change his belief that the central bank will keep its benchmark rate unchanged for the foreseeable future.

US stocks slid lower at the opening bell on Thursday, with the Dow giving up 0.5 percent.

Meanwhile, the pound snapped higher after the Bank of England held interest rates steady. 

The markets had been on guard for a possible rate cut to boost growth as the country's economy weathers Brexit disruptions. 

- TIMES/AFP/AP

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