Coronavirus latest: Tokyo Olympics rescheduled for summer 2021


European stocks make tentative recovery

European stock markets recovered some ground after taking a tumble in early morning trading on Monday, while oil prices dropped to their lowest point in 18 years.

The benchmark Europe Stoxx 600 index edged was flat, after dropping as much as 2 per cent after the opening bell. London’s FTSE 100 was down 0.4 per cent, after dropping almost 3 per cent, while France’s Cac 40 was down by 0.7 per cent.

Airbus, listed on the Paris stock exchange, suffered a share price drop of roughly 8 per cent as the company battles to shore up its finances against a backdrop of critically weak global aircraft demand.

Wall Street’s S&P 500 futures, having dipped into negative earlier in the day, were up close to 1.3 per cent, pointing to a gain in US stocks when they start trading later in the day.

Analysts at UBS suggested that the rapid pace of declines in global markets could now start to cool, noting in a report that “the early stages of selling fatigue” may be setting in. “However, because infection rates are likely to keep rising for some time . . . it may be early to say a firm bottom has already been made,” the bank added.

UK restaurant group Carluccio’s falls into administration

Alice Hancock in London reports:

Carluccio’s, the Italian-themed restaurant chain, has gone into administration after a week of frantic attempts to find ways to survive the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced all UK restaurants to close.

Mark Jones, Carluccio’s chief executive, said that the UK chain had been declared insolvent shortly after noon on Monday, three days after it had appointed the advisers FRP to consider restructuring options.

Carluccio’s is the first major casualty of the casual dining sector following the government’s compulsory closure of all restaurants, pubs and bars this month.

Last week, the Restaurant Group said it was putting its Chiquito and Food & Fuel brands into administration, but that these only accounted for 10 per cent of the company’s sites. It also owns the Wagamama, Frankie & Benny’s and Garfunkel’s chains.

Byron, the burger chain, has also appointed advisers and is in discussions with the government on a possible support package.

Prince of Wales completes self-isolation

The British heir to the throne, Prince Charles, has ended self-isolation following his diagnosis with Covid-19, according to a statement. The prince, 71, had come out of isolation “having consulted with his doctor,” a statement from Clarence House, his official residence, said.

The prince became the first senior British figure to announce having received a positive test for coronavirus last Wednesday.

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, and health secretary, Matt Hancock have both since said they have contracted the virus. Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s senior adviser, is self-solating after developing symptoms.

Prince Charles had self-isolated for seven days, according to an official, and is currently in good health.

Clarence House has confirmed today that, having consulted with his doctor, The Prince of Wales is now out of self-isolation.

The prince was tested by the National Health Service in Aberdeenshire, where he has been staying at Birkdale, his residence on the queen’s Balmoral estate.

BBVA executives forego bonuses in ‘gesture of responsibility’

Daniel Dombey in Madrid

BBVA says its top executives will forego bonuses this year, making it the latest Spain-based bank to make a gesture of solidarity in the face of the coronavirus crisis.

Carlos Torres, executive chairman, said the bank’s management had decided “to give up all variable compensation” this year as a “gesture of responsibility”.

He added of the coronavirus outbreak, which has hit Spain particularly hard: “We have to manage the impact that all this is going to have on the bank, we have to ensure sufficient liquidity, we have to control costs, we have to conserve capital, prioritising solvency…so that we can support the economy [and] do everything we can to protect everyone’s job at BBVA.”

Mr Torres said that more than half BBVA’s global workforce – more than 70,000 people – is working from home.

Last week CaixaBank said it was more than halving the dividend for its 2019 and reducing the pay out for 2020, adding that it wished “to be a key contributor to the speedy recovery of the Spanish and Portuguese economies, facilitating the provision of credit where it may be needed”.

Gonzalo Gortázar, its chief executive, said he would forego any bonus.

Meanwhile Santander chairman Ana Botín is taking a 50 per cent pay cut this year to back a €25m medical equipment fund to help counter the pandemic.

Ukraine president defied by own party ahead of key anti-crisis votes

Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv reports:

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, which holds an outright majority in parliament, failed on Monday to approve the appointment of new finance and health ministers proposed by the leader as part of the latest government shakeup.

The failed votes deepened concern that Mr Zelensky would struggle to muster parliamentary support for swift adoption of two laws that are required by the IMF to unlock an $8bn loan to cushion the country during the Covid-19 pandemic. These include sanctioning the sale of farm land and adopting a banking law.

MPs said parliament would be able to vote on these IMF-required laws later on Monday, including one which goes against the interests of Igor Kolomoisky, an oligarch who backed Mr Zelensky’s presidential campaign last year.

In dramatic televised votes which showed MPs wearing medical masks, protective eyewear and gloves, opposition MPs joined Mr Zelensky’s party in supporting his request to oust finance minister Ihor Umansky and head of Ukraine’s health ministry Ilya Yemets. But minutes later, parliament failed to muster 226 majority votes to appoint Mr Zelensky’s new candidates for finance and health minister, Serhiy Marchenko and Maksym Stepanov, respectively.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to self-isolate

Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv reports:

Israel’s caretaker prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will self-isolate for at least a week after an aide tested positive for the coronavirus.

Mr Netanyahu, 70 and in generally good health, is not showing any symptoms, and will likely be tested tomorrow, an Israeli official said.

A previous test in mid-March came back negative, and Mr Netanyahu has been working mostly via video conferencing because of the large number of Israeli lawmakers and military officials who are currently self-isolating.

Mr Netanyahu had not recently been in close proximity with the aide, according to local media, who identified her as Rivka Paluch, an advisor on the ultra-orthodox religious minority.

Israel has approximately 4,400 confirmed cases, and has instituted a partial lockdown to try and break the cycle of infection.

Mr Netanyahu is scheduled this week to make a decision on whether to enforce a stricter lockdown, as a health ministry official told state radio that thousands of Israeli deaths before the end of the summer remain the government’s worst case scenario.

UK may keep schools open for Easter to ease pressure on frontline staff

Andrew Jack, global education editor:

The government is poised to call on schools to remain open during the Easter holidays wherever possible to provide teaching and childcare for essential workers, officials have said.

The Department for Education is finalising guidelines for continued operations as concerns grow over how healthcare employees and others in strategic occupations will be able to work during the break (6-17 April) if they are required to look after their children from home.

Civil servants have been discussing plans with unions and representatives of teachers and schools, as they consider how to provide staffing cover and ways to consolidate provision for children in multiple schools into a smaller number of hubs.

Teachers organisations have been keen to stress the need for flexibility, allowing staff to take holidays and some schools to close, while balancing consolidation into hubs against the increased health risks from reduced social distancing.

Northern Ireland temporarily releases prisoners to ease strain on jails

Arthur Beesley in Dublin

Northern Ireland’s devolved government will temporarily release prisoners to lessen the strain on its prisons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Naomi Long, justice minister, said “fewer than 200 individuals” due for release in the next three months will be freed early. Such action is taken only when there is “no alternative”, she said, adding that prisoners convicted of murder, terrorism and sexual crimes will not be released.

“In anticipation of the time when we have a confirmed [Covid-19] case among our prisoner population and our staffing levels, which are already under strain, come under further pressure, I now consider it necessary to release some prisoners early,” she said.


Tokyo Olympics rescheduled for summer 2021

The Tokyo Olympics have been rescheduled for the summer of 2021, the International Olympic Committee has announced.

The games will be held from July 23 to August 8 2021 — exactly one year after they had been originally scheduled to take place.

The decision comes after Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe last week proposed a one-year delay to the games after the coronavirus pandemic made holding them this summer unfeasible.

The IOC said the new dates would keep any disruption to the international sports calendar to a minimum.

IOC President Thomas Bach said:

With this announcement, I am confident that, working together with the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Japanese Government and all our stakeholders, we can master this unprecedented challenge. Humankind currently finds itself in a dark tunnel. These Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 can be a light at the end of this tunnel

Ryanair keeps planes flying on bare-bones schedule

Ryanair will keep a small fraction of its aircraft operational for another week for “emergency reasons” as the spread of coronavirus forces many carriers to halt flights altogether.

Europe’s biggest low-cost carrier said that while 90 per cent of its fleet remains grounded it would extend the operation of a limited schedule between the UK and Ireland until April 9.

Ryanair said the intention of the move was to “maintain vital links” between the two countries “to facilitate our passengers and their families to deal with emergencies that may require urgent travel over the coming days and weeks”.

Government-imposed lockdowns and sweeping restrictions on travel have sent demand for flights plummeting. Low-cost rival easyJet this morning grounded its entire fleet.

British Airways extends credit line by a year

Peggy Hollinger in London reports:

British Airways, the UK airline owned by International Airlines Group, has extended its revolving credit line by one year to help it navigate the current upheaval in the global aviation industry, with more than a third of the world’s aircraft fleet grounded due to the spreading coronavirus pandemic.

IAG, which also owns Aer Lingus and Iberia airlines, said the extension gave the whole group undrawn general and committed aircraft financing facilities equivalent to €2.1bn, compared with €1.9bn at the end of 2019. IAG said it had not drawn down on any of its facilities.

IAG continues to have strong liquidity with cash, cash equivalents and interest-bearing deposits of €7.2bn as at 27 March … Total cash and undrawn facilities are currently €9.3bn.

Earlier this month British Airways’ chief executive Alex Cruz warned that the carrier was facing a fight for its very survival as a result of the crisis, despite the support of its parent and a strong balance sheet. Airlines are haemorrhaging cash as countries impose tough restrictions on travel in a bid to contain the virus.

Willie Walsh, who postponed his retirement as chief executive to help manage the group during the crisis, has said IAG would not seek bespoke state aid in the UK, although it intended to use the measures introduced recently to subsidise wages as employees are furloughed.

Saudi Arabia raises crude exports as global demand collapses

Anjli Raval in London

Saudi Arabia plans to increase its crude exports to 10.6m b/d from May, an energy ministry official said on Monday, as demand for crude collapses amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The kingdom will burn less oil for power generation, substituting it with natural gas from the Al-Fadhili plant. Together with a drop in local fuel consumption because of shutdowns related to the coronavirus outbreak, this will leave more crude for export.

Saudi Arabia has launched a price war and plans to unleash more barrels on to the market just as demand for crude has collapsed internationally.

Industry analysts and people familiar with the Saudi energy ministry say the shock-and-awe strategy is aimed at putting as much pressure on oil prices as possible.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, fell more than 8 per cent to $22.85 a barrel on Monday — after hitting the lowest level since 2002. US marker West Texas Intermediate dropped by 5 per cent to $20.42 a barrel. US crude oil prices fell below $20 a barrel shortly after trading reopened on Sunday, close to their lowest level in 18 years.

Irish job losses climb on the back of fresh lockdown measures

Arthur Beesley in Dublin:

Ireland has reported a surge in coronavirus job losses, with 283,000 people seeking special welfare payments even before a tightening of restrictions at the weekend closed yet more businesses.

More than 16,000 companies have also applied for a wage subsidy scheme through which the government pays 70 per cent of wages in businesses hit by the pandemic.

Regina Doherty, social protection minister, said the government expected more applications to follow the measures introduced on Friday night, which led to the closure of building sites and some services that had remained open.

“We do genuinely expect to have a significant draw again this week based on the companies that have closed down,” she told national broadcaster RTÉ.

Rating agencies warn of impending sovereign defaults

Steve Johnson reports:

Rating agencies are warning that a swathe of low-income countries could face difficulties rolling over their external debt, raising fears of a sharp rise in sovereign defaults.

In recent weeks foreign investors have sucked capital from emerging markets at a faster pace than during any previous crisis. Many EM currencies have also fallen sharply, raising the cost of servicing dollar-denominated debt, while government finances are, in many cases, being shredded by tumbling oil and tourism revenues and the economic cost of implementing lockdowns and other social distancing measures to combat Covid-19.

Moody’s said on Monday that lower-rated emerging market governments with large international bond maturities in the coming quarters “face significant rollover risk”. Sri Lanka, Honduras, Turkey and Tunisia are “particularly susceptible”, Moody’s said.

Bahrain, Oman and Angola are also seen as “particularly vulnerable” as they have a large stock of foreign currency debt owed to private creditors.

Separately S&P warned that an “extended” shock to investor sentiment “could result in heightened refinancing risk, especially for low-rated issuers”.

“We believe stress could become more significant in the coming weeks given that most EMs are only beginning to show an escalation of Covid-19 cases,” S&P said.

The IMF and World Bank have already called for debt relief on bilateral government-to-government loans for countries that qualify for the World Bank’s concessional lending programme, but this would not apply to debt owed to private creditors, which has ballooned in recent years.

Irish fishermen flounder as market hits the rocks

Arthur Beesley in Kilmore Quay reports:

The pandemic has dealt a blow to Ireland’s seafood industry, as a widespread lockdown has closed restaurants in China, Italy, France and England that would usually buy premium fish from its waters.

Prices of lobster and crab have dropped since governments have shut down to stem the spread of coronavirus. Live lobster fetched €28 a kilo in China before the onset of the pandemic, which diverted sales of frozen lobster to South Korea at €14 a kilo before the market there dried up. 

“We had a market one day, the next day you’re told it’s gone,” said Irish fisherman Stephen Scallan, as he loaded tackle on to his fishing boat in Kilmore Quay, in the south-east of Ireland. 

Read more here

Hong Kong university offers free tests for children

The Chinese University of Hong Kong has offered to conduct free stool screening tests for children arriving in the city by air amid fears of a fresh coronavirus outbreak.

The test used by the Department of Health, which relies on saliva, has a potentially high rate of false negative results and is difficult to use on small children because of the way samples are collected.

CU Medicine will work with Hong Kong’s government to distribute stool test kits to infants arriving at Hong Kong International Airport. The tests began to be used on March 29. The results will then be shared with the government which will follow up with cases that test positive.

“The deep throat saliva test could carry a rather high false negative rate of over 40 per cent if it is not collected properly,” said Professor Paul Chan Kay Sheung, chairman of the Department of Microbiology, CU Medicine.

Infants and children who have been infected with Covid-19 can become silent carriers and spread the disease in the community.

“Stool specimens are more convenient to collect,” he added, “and can give more accurate results.”

EU waives ‘use it or lose it’ slots to help ailing airlines

Javier Espinoza in Brussels reports:

The EU has amended existing regulation to waive a requirement for airlines to use at least 80 per cent of their take-off and landing slots until October 24 this year so that carriers can keep them the following year, the Council of the European Union said in a statement on Monday.

The waiver will apply from March 1 and it will also apply retroactively from January 23 – when the first airport was closed in China – to February 29 for flights between the EU and China or Hong Kong, the statement added.

“It seems clear now that this crisis will not be over very soon,” said Oleg Butkovic, Croatian minister for the sea, transport and infrastructure. “Waiving the ‘use it or lose it’ rule until October will help mitigate the heavy economic impact on airlines and give them certainty over the whole summer season.”

The EU will look to extend the measures quickly “if the current serious situation persists”, the statement added. The European Commission will provide an update by September 15.

Mercedes, F1 and London hospital develop NHS device

Mercedes, Formula One and London university engineers have developed a breathing aid to help coronavirus patients in intensive care as British industry steps up its efforts to provide life-saving technology to bolster frontline services.

University College London and University College London Hospital engineers adapted the continuous positive airway pressure device from similar tools used in hospitals in Italy and China to help patients with serious lung infections. Regulators have recommended the device.

UCLH will take delivery of 100 for clinical trials this week before they are introduced throughout UK hospitals.

Reports from Italy indicate that about 50 per cent of patients using these aids have not needed medical ventilation afterwards.

UCLH critical care consultant Professor Mervyn Singer said:

These devices will help to save lives by ensuring that ventilators, a limited resource, are used only for the most severely ill. While they will be tested at UCLH first, we hope they will make a real difference to hospitals across the UK by reducing demand on intensive care staff and beds, as well as helping patients recover without the need for more invasive ventilation.

The news comes as the British government comes under scrutiny for not acting fast enough to increase the supply of ventilatory equipment. A number of big-name manufacturers have stepped up plans to plug the shortfall in efforts reminiscent of a wartime economic push.

Austria to make masks compulsory

Sam Jones in Zurich reports:

Austria is to distribute millions of masks to citizens this week, as the government unveiled plans to make the wearing of them compulsory outside the home.

Masks will be distributed for free at the entrances to all supermarkets in Austria by Wednesday, chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Monday, as part of measures to restrict the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Shoppers will only be permitted inside supermarkets and other shops that remain open if they are wearing the masks. In the “medium term”, the government envisages masks will be required in situations outside the home that bring people into contact with one another, Mr Kurz said.

It’s clear that the wearing of masks will be a big change, but it is necessary to reduce the spread further.

We have to recognise from the numbers that is is necessary to do everything we can.

The free masks will not meet the same medical standards as those used by doctors and nurses. The government hopes that measures making citizens cover their noses and mouths in public, even with relatively simple barriers, will have an impact on transmission of the virus.

Austria on Monday confirmed a total of 8,813 Covid-19 cases, with 108 deaths.

Germany’s council of advisers assess depth of hit to economy

Guy Chazan in Berlin

The council of German economic advisers, a panel that advises Angela Merkel’s government, has said the impact from the coronavirus pandemic means that a deep recession in the first half of this year is now inevitable.

The depth of the downturn depends on how long the country is shut down and how quick it will recover after the restrictions on public life are lifted, the advisers said on Monday. Under its baseline scenario, the council expects a 2.8 per cent decline in German gross domestic product this year and a 3.7 per cent expansion next year.

But if the shutdown remains in force for longer and more factories suspend production, the experts foresee a V-shaped “risk scenario” in which GDP will decline by 5.4 per cent this year and expand by 4.9 per cent next year.

They also sketch out a risk scenario of a “long U” downturn, in which restrictions last over the summer and recovery begins in 2021. Under this scenario, the economy would contract by 4.5 per cent this year and grow by 1.0 per cent next.

Lars Feld, head of the panel, said the German government should be clear with the population about its exit strategy plans.

A clearly communicated normalisation strategy can stabilise companies’ and households’ expectations and reduce the uncertainty.

Live Q&A: UK government business support for the self-employed

Entrepreneurs, small business owners and the self-employed are being tested to their limits as disruption from the coronavirus spreads through the UK economy. 

Claer Barrett, the FT’s personal finance editor, has been writing and broadcasting throughout the crisis on the challenges small businesses are facing, how they are adapting and what they think about various support measures launched by the government. 

This is your chance to ask Claer your questions about business support programmes, tell us about your own experiences and help to shape the FT’s coverage of this crucial issue. 

Claer will host her Q&A beginning at 11am Bst. It is available above or on the FT’s YouTube channel. Send your queries to [email protected]

Spain reports 800 virus-related daily deaths as spread of infection eases

Daniel Dombey in Madrid

For the third day in a row, more than 800 people have died in Spain after contracting coronavirus, but the spread of the virus is slowing.

Figures released by the government on Monday showed that 7,340 people have died after becoming infected with the virus, 812 of them in the past 24 hours. This follows record daily death tolls of more than 800 over the weekend.

Last week, the death toll in Spain surpassed that in China, where the outbreak originated. Spain has also overtaken China in terms of numbers of cases; it is third after the US and Italy.

However, Spain’s total of 85,195 people with documented cases of coronavirus represents an 8 per cent daily rise – which in proportional terms is below the daily increases of 25 per cent or more earlier in the crisis.

The country has tightened its lockdown measures, banning “non-essential” work for two further weeks as of Monday, as it seeks to reduce the transmission of the disease and relieve pressure on intensive care units.

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Dominic Cummings isolates after showing coronavirus symptoms

Sebastian Payne in London

Another senior UK government figure has gone into self-isolation after showing signs of coronavirus. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s closest adviser, developed symptoms over the weekend and will remain at home for the next seven days.

No 10 insiders confirmed Mr Cummings was self-isolating, but remains “in contact” with Downing Street over its response to the crisis.

Mr Cummings has been the most influential member of Mr Johnson’s inner circle since the latter became prime minister last summer. The aide is credited with shaping No 10’s strategy and messaging on delivering Brexit, “levelling up” the British economy and tackling coronavirus.

He joins Mr Johnson, health secretary Matt Hancock and chief medical officer Chris Whitty in showing symptoms of the virus. Several other junior government officials are in self-isolation as a precaution.

Riot breaks out as prisoners attempt to escape from Iranian jail

Monavar Khalaj in Tehran reports:

Iranian prisoners in the historic city of Shiraz staged a riot as they attempted to escape following suspicions of a coronavirus outbreak in their jail.

“Vakilabad prison in Shiraz witnessed a riot on Sunday at 10pm which was brought under control,” said head of justice department in Fars province, Kazem Mousavi, on Monday. “Prisoners resorted to riots in two wards wherein those charged with serious [social] crimes are locked up and have not been entitled to leave.”

Other local authorities said 14 inmates suffered minor injuries in their clash with security forces in Vakilabad jail but that none had escaped.

Iran’s judiciary has granted bail to about 100,000 prisoners until mid-April in a bid to stem the spread of the virus in the crowded jails. The move has angered other prisoners who have not been subject to the temporary release. Unofficial reports put the population of prisoners between 180,000 to 250,000 people.

With 117 new deaths, Iran’s coronavirus fatalities increased to 2,757 on Monday out of 41,495 confirmed cases.

Belgium says lockdown beginning to deliver results

Jim Brunsden in Brussels reports:

The Belgian government said that there were tentative signs that the intensity of the coronavirus epidemic had started to diminish, signalling that the lockdown was delivering results.

The number of new admissions to intensive care recorded on Sunday — 60 — was the lowest since March 23, and less than half the number recorded on March 25.

A spokesman for the government’s crisis centre said Belgium was not yet at the peak of the epidemic — because the number of people in hospital will continue to rise — but that the latest numbers were a positive sign.

The force of the epidemic has started to diminish. And that is thanks to the efforts we have all made after the past two weeks; it’s very important to signal that … It’s important to maintain this efforts. It’s not because the curve adjusts today that it cannot take off again if we relax our efforts.

Belgium moved swiftly to impose tough lockdown conditions to fight the epidemic. Bars and restaurants were shut on March 14, while a fuller lockdown has been in place since Wednesday March 18.

The spokesman said that 53 per cent of intensive care beds are occupied.

Fears of second wave of cases ebb in Taiwan

Kathrin Hille, greater China correspondent:

Taiwan reported eight new confirmed cases on Monday, taking its total to 306 and marking the slowest increase in 11 days, as concerns over a second wave of infections recede.

The country announced one more death late Sunday and two more on Monday, more than doubling its death toll to five.

As with most of the new infections in the past two weeks, seven of the eight new cases are Taiwanese who recently returned from overseas, mainly from the US or UK.

After infection numbers began growing rapidly in Europe and the US earlier this month, the Taiwanese health authorities barred foreigners who are not residents from entry and imposed stricter screening for Taiwanese arriving from travel, work or study overseas.

The majority of the about 250 cases confirmed over the last two weeks were discovered through testing at the airport or during quarantine after arrival. The health authorities therefore assume that community transmission has mostly been avoided.

UK sentiment shows drop even before stricter measures enforced

Valentina Romei in London

Economic sentiment in the UK dropped sharply in the first half of March as the coronavirus crisis hit the economy and threatened jobs even before measures of social distancing were introduced.

The monthly figures from the European Commission showed a deterioration in sentiment across businesses in the services and manufacturing sectors as well as among consumers, dragging the overall UK sentiment to 92 in March from 95.5 in February. The average since 2000 is 100. The drop reverses some of the gains seen after the general election in December.

The figures are among the first available to indicate the depth of the impact to the economy as output data is published with weeks of time lag. However, they largely predate the more stringent measures of social distancing as data was mostly collected during the first two weeks of March.

Manufacturers are the most pessimistic with an index dropping to minus 21 in March from minus 13.2 in February. Sentiment dropped 5 percentage points to minus 9.3 in the services sector.

The coronavirus crisis is hitting jobs, according to the survey as employment expectations in the manufacturing sector dropped to the lowest level since the financial crisis in 2009.

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Eurozone business confidence suffers worst fall

Mehreen Khan in Brussels reports:

A measure of business sentiment in the eurozone has suffered its worst monthly drop since records began, underscoring the precipitous fall in confidence across Europe’s industry.

The European Commission’s monthly survey of business confidence in the eurozone fell sharply by 8.9 points in March – the worst single monthly fall since it started in 1985. The drops were led by Italy, Germany and France. The gauge dropped to its lowest level since 2013.

The true extent of the fall in confidence is likely to be worse as the survey was done before most of Europe’s population entered lockdown, said the commission.

Czech billionaire tests positive as cases rise in eastern Europe

James Shotter in Warsaw

Czech billionaire Daniel Kretinsky, whose assets stretch from power stations to a stake in the company that owns French newspaper Le Monde, said he had tested positive for coronavirus and is now in recovery.

In an interview with the Blesk newspaper, which is part of his media empire, Mr Kretinsky said that he had been working in isolation. Twenty-seven people who had come into contact with him were also tested for the virus but their results were negative.

Mr Kretinsky, who has emerged in recent years as one of Europe’s most active deal-makers, said that his symptoms had been relatively mild. “I didn’t cough or have a temperature, I didn’t have any other symptoms. I just didn’t feel well for a few days,” he said.

A spokesman confirmed that Mr Kretinsky had had the virus, but said that he was feeling better and had since tested negative.

The Czech Republic has so far recorded 2,837 cases of the coronavirus, and 17 deaths.

Russia reports 20 per cent rise in cases despite strict quarantine rules

Henry Foy in Moscow reports:

Russia reported a 20 per cent rise in coronavirus cases on Monday, taking its total to 1,836 infections and nine deaths, as Moscow and the surrounding region imposed a near-full quarantine on their 20m population.

After weeks of claiming that the outbreak was under control, Moscow has ramped up its restrictions in recent days in a bid to curb a sharp rise in cases, which have more than quadrupled over the past week.

The 302 new cases announced on Monday is the highest daily increase.
Russia’s central government has encouraged other regions in the country to adopt Moscow’s approach, which bans people from leaving their homes except for essential trips to the nearest food shop or pharmacy, and for walking pets 100m from one’s front door.

The mystery of the true coronavirus death rate

Camilla Hodgson in London reports:

The figure at the root of so much global angst about coronavirus is currently 4.7 per cent. That is the proportion of people, as of Sunday afternoon, who have died after being diagnosed with the virus — 32,137 out of the 685,623 who have tested positive for Covid-19 around the world.

It compares with a death rate of around 0.1 per cent for seasonal flu and 0.2 per cent for pneumonia in high-income countries. However, 4.7 per cent is not only changeable but frustratingly unreliable, both for governments seeking to calibrate their policy response and for citizens trying to gauge how much they should worry.

The proportion of people who have died from the disease varies strikingly from country to country. Researchers warn that there are so many uncertainties — not least over the true number of infections — that it remains almost impossible to draw firm conclusions about the death rate.

Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies programme, has outlined four factors that might contribute to the differing mortality rates: who becomes infected, what stage the epidemic has reached in a country, how much testing a country is doing, and how well different healthcare systems are coping.

Read Camilla’s full piece here

UBS chief donates around $1m for virus aid

Stephen Morris, European banking correspondent:

UBS chief executive Sergio Ermotti has personally donated SFr1m ($1.1m) to help the coronavirus pandemic relief efforts.

The money will be distributed through his family foundation “via non-profit organisations to people in need of emergency funds”, according to a statement on Monday. It follows a SFr30m donation from UBS itself for patients and families suffering from the crisis.

Mr Ermotti also told Swiss tabloid Blick that UBS has approved 10,000 small-business loan applications as part of a government scheme, resulting in about SFr1tn of financing. Any proceeds from the emergency loans will be donated to charity.

Mr Ermotti – who is stepping down in November and will be succeeded by current ING CEO, Ralph Hamers – is working from home in Montagnola, a small Swiss village overlooking Lake Lugano near the Swiss-Italian border.

Last week Ana Botín, chairman of Banco Santander, donated 50 per cent of her 2020 salary and bonus to a fund the bank is creating to help those affected by the virus.

Japan’s SoftBank share fall offers measure of virus turmoil

Leo Lewis and Kana Inagaki in Tokyo

Shares in SoftBank Group fell in Tokyo as the Japanese technology group reprised its role as a weathervane of investor fears over coronavirus-triggered financial turmoil.

The shares, which dropped more than 9 per cent in the first few minutes of trading, closed 4.99 per cent lower. The main trigger, said traders, was weekend news that the satellite internet start-up OneWeb had filed for bankruptcy and sacked most of its staff at the end of last week.

The company, which runs the $100bn Vision Fund and whose reputation was dented by last year’s WeWork debacle, last week had its credit downgraded two notches by the ratings agency Moody’s.

Before the downgrade, shares had surged 55 per cent after it unveiled a $41bn asset sale programme to pay down its debt and expand its share buyback plan to $25bn.

OneWeb had been in fundraising talks with SoftBank, it’s largest backer, and traders said that the collapse of those discussions had re-ignited speculation over how the group’s finances, the most leveraged among large Japanese companies, were braced for the turmoil in markets.

Traders believe the afternoon recovery in SoftBank shares was principally driven by heavy buying from the Bank of Japan.

Global cases fall more than a tenth in one day

Steve Bernard in London

The number of new daily confirmed cases dropped by more than 10 per cent on Sunday, the first significant drop in several weeks.

Even the US, which has recorded increasing daily reported numbers, reported a decline, with 18,882 on Sunday from 19,452 a day earlier.

However, this is just one day’s figures. Until a consistent decline shows a trend, caution is advised about drawing any conclusions that the virus has peaked.

StanChart launches $1bn fund for companies tackling pandemic

Stephen Morris in London reports:

Standard Chartered has started a $1bn fund to finance companies that provide goods and services that help abate the coronavirus pandemic, including those switching their infrastructure to make products in high demand such as masks.

As well as the pharmaceutical industry and healthcare providers, the fund will be available to “non-medical companies that have volunteered to add this capability to their manufacturing output… including ventilators, face masks, protective equipment [and] sanitisers”, the bank said on Monday.

Asia-focused StanChart will offer preferential rates on at least $1bn in the form of loans, import-export finance or working capital facilities to cover the costs of changes to factories and product distribution, according to the statement.

“Clearly there’s a cost for companies to switch into these hugely in-demand items, so it’s an area where we can help them get up and running more quickly,” said Simon Cooper, head of StanChart’s corporate and investment bank.

Spain’s coronavirus medical strategist suspected of having Covid-19

Daniel Dombey in Madrid

Fernando Simón, the doctor helping lead Spain’s battle against coronavirus, has a suspected case of Covid-19, the government said on Monday.

Dr Simón has been the public face of the drive against coronavirus, giving daily televised briefings and helping shape strategy.

The Spanish government said his possible case was detected on Sunday night and he is awaiting confirmatory test results.

Germany reports nearly 5,000 new cases

Tobias Buck in Berlin reports:

Germany reported 4,751 new Coronavirus cases on Monday, taking the total to 57,298 since the crisis started, even as the total number of cases and deaths fell globally for the first time in two weeks.

The official numbers were once again incomplete, however, reflecting the fact that several German federal states failed to pass on up-to-date infection numbers over the weekend. That same caveat applies to the data on Covid-19 deaths released by the Robert Koch Institute on Monday. It showed 69 new fatalities, taking the total to 455.

The time lag means Germany’s official count is likely to rise notably in the days ahead, as data from the weekend is gradually included.

According to Johns Hopkins University in the US, Germany currently has
62,435 Coronavirus cases and 541 dead.

European stocks slip as oil price slump rattles investors

European stock markets slipped on Monday while oil prices dropped to their lowest point in 18 years.

The benchmark Europe Stoxx 600 index dipped by 2.4 per cent after the opening bell while the German Dax fell 1.7 per cent. London’s FTSE 100 dropped 2.8 per cent, and the French CAC 40 fell 3.2 per cent. 

Paris-listed Airbus suffered a share price drop of almost 10 per cent as the company reeled from critically weak demand.

The declines in Europe came after stocks across Asia fell as oil prices dropped on mounting fears that coronavirus would cause a collapse in global demand.

Wall Street’s S&P 500 futures, having gained earlier in the day, were recently down around 1 per cent, pointing to a drop in US stocks when they start trading later in the day.

Daily diagnosed cases fall for first time in weeks

Steve Bernard in London

Daily confirmed cases have fallen for the first time in several weeks.

The number of those diagnosed with Covid-19 on Sunday dropped 10 per cent to 59,232 compared with Saturday, bringing the total to 723,362.

The number of deaths attributed to coronavirus fell from 3,518 to 3,105 on Sunday, with a total 33,967 losing their lives to the pandemic .

The US has added more cases than any other country with 18,882 people confirmed on Sunday. However, some of the worst affected countries including the US, Italy, Spain, France and Iran recorded a fall in the number of deaths compared with Saturday.

New recoveries rose by 9,359, bringing the total number of people free from the virus to 151,312.

UK sandwich and ready meal maker Greencore scraps dividend

Judith Evans reports:

Greencore, the UK’s largest sandwich maker, has scrapped its interim dividend, cut management pay and will furlough employees in its “food to go” operation after consumers on lockdown stopped buying takeaway lunches.

The company, which also makes other convenience foods such as ready meals, said: “There has been a marked reduction in demand for the group’s food to go categories in grocery retail, which has been partly offset by the sustained volume growth in the group’s other convenience categories.”

Some employees in its food to go division will be furloughed using a government scheme which pays out 80 per cent of wage costs. Greencore’s board and executive directors will take a 30 per cent cut to their base salary and fees for three months, while other members of its leadership team will take a 20 per cent cut for the same period.

The company has also suspended its financial guidance, deferred a “substantial portion of previously planned capital expenditure” and arranged a new $75m debt facility in addition to its existing £265m of cash and undrawn bank debt. Its shares dropped 7.3 per cent to £1.58 in early trading.

De Beers cancels third ‘sight’ event in Botswana

Henry Sanderson in London

De Beers has cancelled its diamond sales event in Botswana this week due to coronavirus-imposed travel restrictions that has grounded clients and prevented them from shipping goods.

The diamond supply chain has been hard hit by coronavirus due to its international reach. The world’s largest diamond polishing and cutting centre in Surat in India has been in lockdown, while Antwerp’s diamond-buying facilities have closed.

De Beers, a unit of Anglo-American, sells most of its diamonds at 10 “sights” a year in Botswana’s capital of Gaborone to a pre-approved group of buyers known as Sightholders. The third sight was set to start on March 30.

The group, which has an online auction platform, said it would allow Sightholders to defer their allocations of diamonds to later in the year.

UK health minister says return to normal will ‘take some time’

George Parker reports:

Helen Whately, health minister, said we “know this will take some time before life returns to normal” but declined to speculate on whether the social distancing measures in place across Britain would be in place for at least three months.

“There will be a review in two or three weeks time to see the effects this is having,” she told the BBC’s Today programme. “It’s all about flattening the peak of the virus.” Deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries said on Sunday some restrictions could be in place for six months.

Ms Whately said the NHS now had “the capacity” to carry out 10,000 daily tests for Covid-19 but that 7,000 tests a day were conducted over the weekend. The aim was to reach 25,000 a day in “the next three weeks”.

She declined to say when she expected millions of tests for antibodies – to establish if a person had been infected – to arrive.

Ms Whately said both Matt Hancock, health secretary, and Boris Johnson, prime minister, were continuing to work from home in spite of having contracted the virus.

Meanwhile Prof Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, whose work has informed the government’s response to Covid-19, said there were some encouraging signs that draconian social distancing measures in Britain were starting to slow the spread of the disease.

“In the UK we can see some early signs of slowing in some indicators,” the epidemiologist said. Prof Ferguson said that the number of deaths was a lagging indicator, but there were signs that the rate of increase in hospital admissions was starting to slow.

ABN Amro predicts first-quarter loss on rising default rates

Nicholas Megaw in London

Dutch lender ABN Amro has become one of the first major banks to confirm that it expects to report a loss for the first quarter as loan default rates soar.

The state-owned bank last week reported a $200m (€181m) hit thanks to problems at a single client in its clearing division. On Monday, however, it added that a broader increase in loan losses would push it to a loss for the first three months of the year, compared with a net profit of €478m in the first quarter of 2019.

It said the long-term impact of the pandemic on the Dutch economy and the quality of its loan performance remained “uncertain”, but predicted default rates would be “materially higher’ than previously expected.

ABN’s loanbook has been under particular pressure due to its significant exposure to companies in the oil and gas industry, which has been doubly hit by a coronavirus-induced drop in global consumption and a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The bank confirmed it would respond to recent recommendations from the European Central Bank to freeze dividend payments until at least October 1 in an effort to conserve capital.

ABN stressed that it has “a strong capital position and a significant buffer above its minimum capital requirements”.

Oil price slide hits European stocks

European stocks slid along with their counterparts across Asia, as oil prices hit their lowest level in nearly two decades.

Europe’s benchmark Stoxx 600 index opened 0.8 per cent lower while London’s FTSE 100 slid 1.3 per cent. In Germany the Dax was down 0.4 per cent.

Oil prices have plummeted by about two-thirds this year, with a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia compounding the impact of the pandemic. Brent crude, the international marker, fell 6.6 per cent to $23.30 a barrel.

Smiths Group to make 10,000 ventilators for UK government

by Michael Pooler

The engineering conglomerate Smiths Group is to make 10,000 medical ventilators for the UK government, as British industry steps up efforts to plug a shortage of the devices in the fight against the coronavirus.

The FTSE 100 group said it would rapidly boost production of the machines from hundreds to thousands a month, expanding its supply chain capacity with help from a number of big-name manufacturers.

It follows work by an industrial consortium including Rolls-Royce, Airbus, McLaren, Thales, BAE Systems and Ford that formed in response to prime minister Boris Johnson’s calls for British engineering companies to meet rising demand for the life-saving equipment.

Named Ventilator Challenge UK, the consortium is pursuing the increased output of two ventilators already manufactured domestically – the Smiths machine and another model made in Oxfordshire by Penlon. It has received formal orders in excess of 10,000 units.

The Smiths contract consists of 5,000 firm orders and the same number of ventilators on reservation.

Last week Dyson revealed it had separately received a government order to make 10,000 ventilators that it designed from scratch in 10 days.

UK government grants new railway contracts to Govia and First

by Jim Pickard

The UK government has ended the limbo hanging over Southeastern and Great Western railway lines by giving operators Govia and First new contracts to ensure that a skeleton train service continues on both lines for the next few years.

Ministers had been mulling decisions on both franchises with the current franchise contracts expiring on April 1. Chris Heaton-Harris, a junior rail minister, recently signalled that one of the options for Southeastern would be nationalisation by transferring control to the state’s “Operator of Last Resort”.

Another alternative would have been to run conventional franchising competitions for both lines – but time was running out to do so.

Instead the government announced at dawn on Monday that the two operators would be given “direct awards”. Firstgroup has received a three-year agreement for Great Western Railway, extendable to four years. Govia’s direct award for Southeastern will last for two years.

The entire rail industry has been upended by the coronavirus crisis, with the government stepping in last week to cover the shortfall in revenue for all operators for the duration of the pandemic to prevent their collapse.

Corporate roundup: Novacyt, Smith and Nephew, Kier

Smith and Nephew, the medical technology group, withdrew the full-year financial guidance it issued on February 20. It assumed then the impact from Covid-19 outbreak would be “normalised” early in the second quarter. The group expects underlying first-quarter revenue growth to be down about 8 per cent compared with the same period a year ago. It forecasts second-quarter revenue and its first-half trading margin to be “substantially down”.

Kier said its management and staff will be taking a cut in their salaries for three months. The group that maintains UK highways and provides facilities management services to the National Health Service said trading from January 1 to now has been in line and has about 80 per cent of its sites operating. Many of its services have government support while employees in the main are deemed key workers. Its about 6,500 employees, including the executive committee, and the board will take a pay cut of between 7.5 per cent and 25 per cent for a three-month period beginning on April 1.

Novacyt, the Anglo-French coronavirus testing group, said it has sold and received orders for more than £17.8m of its research-use only Covid-19 tests. Primerdesign, the group’s molecular diagnostics division, on Friday received its largest single order of £1.4m from a new customer in India.

EasyJet grounds entire fleet as pandemic impact bites

EasyJet has grounded its entire fleet of aircraft as the impact of the pandemic tightens its grip on the airline industry.

The European low-cost airline, hit by nationwide lockdowns in many European countries, has been hit by government-imposed travel restrictions. The group operated its final rescue flights on Sunday as part of its efforts to repatriate passengers, returning home more than 45,000 people in about 650 flights.

“We will continue to work with government bodies to operate additional rescue flights as requested,” the group said in a statement on Monday. “The grounding of aircraft removes significant cost.”

It will pay its crew 80 per cent of their average pay from April 1 through the government job retention scheme. EasyJet has no date for restarting its commercial flights.

European stock futures tick up even as oil drops

European markets were poised for a modestly upbeat start to the week, with futures pointing higher despite a renewed fall in oil prices.

Futures tracking London’s FTSE 100 rose 0.8 per cent, with German Dax futures climbing 1.4 per cent and French CAC 40 futures up 1.7 per cent. Stoxx 600 futures advanced 1 per cent.

The rise in equities futures comes despite a fresh fall in the price of oil. West Texas Intermediate, the US benchmark, slid below $20 a barrel overnight, and was recently down 3.9 per cent at $20.67. Brent, the international marker, was off 5.9 per cent at $23.46.

News you might have missed

The Australian government has tightened its scrutiny of foreign takeovers over concerns overseas companies could buy up strategic assets on the cheap during the coronavirus crisis.

China’s central bank cut its short-term lending benchmark on Monday and injected Rmb50bn ($7.1bn) into the financial system as the country grappled with the prospect of sharply slower growth due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The South Korean government plans to grant “emergency disaster relief money” to a majority of Korean households to cushion the blow from Covid-19 to Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Health authorities in China reported 31 new confirmed coronavirus cases to the end of Sunday, 30 of which were imported cases.

United Arab Emirates introduces drive-through testing for virus

Simeon Kerr reports from Dubai

The United Arab Emirates is launching drive-through coronavirus testing centres over the next 10 days.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, on Monday instructed the oil-rich emirate’s health service to set up the centres across the federation of seven emirates to provide fast-paced tests for nationals and residents.

The first drive-through centre was launched in the capital on Saturday, offering a five minute, in-car test for Covid-19. Other centres are set to open in Dubai, Sharjah, which will also serve Ajman and Umm al-Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, as well as Al Ain and Al Dhafra in Abu Dhabi.

The UAE on Sunday reported 102 new cases, bringing the total to 570, with three deaths. The country has extended a week-long lockdown, asking residents to stay at home as much as possible during the day and imposing a night-time curfew on everyone except key workers.

Australia announces ‘jobkeeper’ payment for workers

Jamie Smyth in Sydney

Australia has unveiled a A$130bn ($80bn) plan to subsidise the wages of workers who risk losing their jobs as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

The government said on Monday it would pay businesses A$1,500 per worker every fortnight to incentivise companies not to make staff redundant and keep them on their payroll. The payment, which is equivalent to about 70 per cent of the average wage, must be advanced to workers under the terms of the scheme.

The government’s “jobkeeper payment” will last for up to six months and will be backdated to cover employees let go since March 1. Small and medium sized companies become eligible for the payments when their revenues fall by 30 per cent or more. Companies with revenues of more than A$1bn become eligible for the payments when their revenues fall by 50 per cent or more.

Companies have stood down up to 100,000 employees over the past two weeks due to strict social distancing rules and restrictions put in place due to the coronavirus.

The jobkeeper scheme aims to persuade companies to keep staff on their books until the crisis passes, rather than make them redundant.

Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said the scheme was more generous than a similar scheme in operation in New Zealand and broader than an equivalent scheme in the UK.

“We want to keep the economy running through this crisis, it may run in idle for some time, but it must run,” said Mr Morrison.

Shadow banking contracts in China as leverage rises elsewhere

Hudson Lockett reports from Hong Kong

A fall in trust lending led a contraction of Rmb300bn ($42.3bn) for shadow banking credit in China during the first two months of the year, according to a Moody’s analysis that points to a further rise in leverage elsewhere as the world’s second-largest economy grapples with the economic impact of coronavirus.

Trust lending, a core segment of China’s shadow banking industry, fell 5 per cent year on year as core shadow credit shrank to about Rmb21.9tn, according to the quarterly shadow banking monitor from Moody’s Investors Service.

Moody’s estimates that for all of 2020 broad shadow banking assets – covering other key segments including wealth management products – fell Rmb2.3tn to Rmb59tn, while overall credit growth held at 9 per cent.

Analysts expected this pace of overall credit growth to “continue into the new year as the central bank’s easing measures amid the outbreak will likely increase leverage further while economic growth will be markedly lower in coming quarters”.

But a slew of missed payments on shadow banking products in recent weeks has raised fears of a cascade of defaults in the $8.4tn industry. And hundreds of investors are now calling for the government to nationalise one of the country’s shadow banks after it allegedly failed to repay the principal on a trust product on time.

Read the full story here.

South Korea plans cash handouts for households

Song Jung-a reports from Seoul

The South Korean government will draw up another extra budget plan to grant “emergency disaster relief money” to a majority of Korean households to cushion the blow from Covid-19 to Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

President Moon Jae-in said on Monday the government will quickly push for the second supplementary budget bill so that it can be approved by parliament soon after the April 15 legislative elections. Under the scheme, Won1m ($820) will be provided to a four-person household at the bottom 70 per cent of income bracket.

“No one can predict how deep a scar Covid-19 will leave on the global economy and how long the scar will last,” Mr Moon told an emergency economic meeting. “Things are difficult right now but the future is also uncertain. We need to take a long-term approach to revive the economy.”

Mr Moon said it was “not an easy decision” but the people deserve “compensation” for their difficulties as their daily life is upended by the intensifying social distancing campaign and other prevention measures.

He added that the government needed to reserve firepower to prepare for further economic shocks and to address the weakening job market and liquidity shortages at companies.

Mr Moon has unveiled record stimulus packages worth more than $80bn to shore up the faltering economy and parliament has already approved a Won11.7tn supplementary budget plan over the coronavirus.

China’s central bank cuts short-term lending rate to boost liquidity

Hudson Lockett reports from Hong Kong

China’s central bank cut its short-term lending benchmark on Monday and injected Rmb50bn ($7.1bn) into the financial system as the country grappled with the prospect of sharply slower growth due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The People’s Bank of China cut the seven-day reverse repo rate used to manage short-term liquidity by 0.2 percentage points, taking it to 2.2 per cent. Lowering the rate, which sets the cost of seven-day lending from the central bank, is a far less substantial easing measure than a cut to the central bank’s main policy lever — the medium-term lending facility rate.

But the move, which came alongside an injection of about $7bn through seven-day reverse repos, will pull down the cost of short-term loans and boosts interbank liquidity, providing some relief from tight funding conditions.

The PBoC last cut the short-term rate in February by 0.1 percentage points as the country’s financial system returned from an extended lunar new year holiday.

South Korea lowers P2P lending cap on fears of rising delinquencies

Song Jung-a reports from Seoul

South Korea’s financial regulators have lowered the peer-to-peer lending cap from Won50m ($41m) to Won30m ($24.5m) due to concerns about a rise in delinquent and toxic loans amid the fallout from the global coronavirus pandemic.

The revised rules also allow individuals to lend up to Won10m ($8.2m) for property-related investment products, lowered from the original Won30m proposed in the P2P regulation bill approved last November, the Financial Services Commission said on Monday. The rules apply from August 27.

The revision is also aimed at protecting consumers by preventing deceptive P2P lending as the coronavirus continues to impact Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Under P2P lending loans are often offered to individuals and businesses through social media and the internet, covering a wide range of investment products for startups and small merchants.

Outstanding P2P loans in South Korea have increased to Won2.4tn ($2bn) as of the end of February from about Won750bn ($614m) at the end of 2017, while their delinquency ratio rose from 5.5 per cent to 14.9 per cent, according to the FSC.

Mexico steps up appeals for citizens to stay at home

Jude Webber reports from Mexico City

Mexico reported 993 confirmed coronavirus cases nationally and 20 deaths as the health ministry stepped up its appeals for people to stay at home and traffic data suggested compliance to date was slow.

Mexico’s health undersecretary said on Saturday that compliance with the stay at home appeal, which the government is not enforcing, was around 30 per cent and said Mexico was facing a now or never moment to slow the spread of the virus and spare the impact on the health service.

Mexico City’s traffic congestion was down 36 per cent, compared with early March, according to data from navigator Waze, shared on social media by sustainable mobility activist Xavier Treviño Theesz. According to journey planning app Moovit, public transport use was down 50 per cent compared with mid-January.

China reports 30 new imported coronavirus cases

Health authorities in China reported 31 new confirmed coronavirus cases to the end of Sunday, 30 of which were imported cases, with the remaining infection reported in Gansu province. The number of new imported cases was down from 44 a day earlier.

Overall, mainland China has reported 81,470 coronavirus infections. However, experts have highlighted the existence of unreported cases, particularly for patients that show no symptoms.

There were four new deaths to the end of Sunday, taking the total number of fatalities to 3,304.

Australia tightens scrutiny of foreign takeovers

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

The Australian government has tightened its scrutiny of foreign takeovers over concerns overseas companies could buy up strategic assets on the cheap during the coronavirus crisis.

It follows warnings from two government MPs that distressed companies in the aviation and freight sectors could become vulnerable to takeovers by state-owned enterprises from authoritarian regimes, including China.

Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s Treasurer, said on Monday all foreign investment and takeover proposals would now be scrutinised by the government’s foreign investment review board to protect the national interest. However, he denied the measures were aimed specifically at China, noting Beijing was only the fifth-largest overseas investor in Australia last year while the US was the largest.

“These are extraordinary times and we have seen the value of Australian companies, indeed companies right around world, be severely diminished because of the coronavirus and we don’t want predatory behaviour that is not in the national interest occurring,” Mr Frydenberg told Australian radio.

The temporary changes to regulations will apply to existing and new investment proposals. Previously, most foreign takeovers and investments proposed by private companies were not considered by the Australian government unless they were worth more than A$1.1bn.

Richard McGregor, analyst at Lowy Institute, said the new measures were no doubt made with Beijing’s state-owned enterprises in mind, especially as conspiracy theories are swirling about how China is using the crisis as an opportunity to assert its influence.

“But vultures come in many forms, and I think this will end up applying to lots more companies than just those from China,” he said.

News you might have missed

Trump extends US social distancing guidelines to April 30 Donald Trump has extended the US social distancing guidelines until the end of April, amid predictions that the number of deaths there could rise to 100 times what the country has seen so far. One of his most senior medical advisers warned that the death toll could reach 200,000, up from just over 2,000 today.

Mexico López Obrador says self-isolation would play into hands of opposition Despite desperate pleas by the health ministry for people to stay at home, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador again appeared to minimise and politicise the looming Covid-19 crisis.

Ft Lauderdale mayor demands strict docking protocols for Zaandam cruise liner A stricken cruise liner with four dead, two confirmed coronavirus patients and 138 passengers and crew with flu-like symptoms aboard was on course to transit the Panama Canal on Sunday evening en route to Florida.

Nigeria orders two-week lockdown of Lagos and Abuja Nigeria’s president has ordered a two-week lockdown of the commercial capital Lagos and the federal capital Abuja as Africa’s most populous country nears 100 coronavirus cases. He also said all commercial and private aircraft would be grounded.

Moscow to impose full quarantine upon residents from Monday Moscow’s mayor has ordered a full quarantine of citizens from Monday, banning all residents from leaving their homes except for absolute necessities.

New York fatalities climb towards 1,000 New York recorded an additional 237 coronavirus deaths over the last 24 hours, bringing the state’s total to 965.

UK could take six months or longer to get ‘back to normal’ It could be up to six months – and perhaps longer – before British people can return to their “normal” lives, according to the deputy chief medical officer. Speaking at the government’s daily press briefing Jenny Harries said lockdown measures would have to be gradually lessened and that dropping restrictions suddenly would be “quite dangerous”.

Oil prices slump, Asia stocks fall as coronavirus measures extended

US oil prices fell below $20 a barrel, Asia equities slipped and US stock futures moved lower as governments said social distancing measures to stem the spread of coronavirus would have to be extended.

West Texas Intermediate, the US benchmark, fell more than 7 per cent to a low of $19.92 a barrel, the lowest level in 18 years, as the hit to global economies from coronavirus dents demand. International benchmark Brent crude was down 5.7 per cent at $23.50 a barrel.

Japan’s Topix fell 2.7 per cent and the Kospi in South Korea was down 3.2 per cent in early trading. The S&P/ASX 200 in Australia was an outlier, up 0.8 per cent. S&P 500 futures slipped 1.2 per cent.

US President Donald Trump announced on Sunday night that the guidelines to avoid social contact would remain in place until April 30, following a warning from one of his most senior medical advisers that the death toll from coronavirus could reach 200,000.

The S&P 500 had ended down 3.4 per cent on Friday as investors piled into haven assets such as US Treasuries ahead of the weekend. The index had gained 10.3 per cent for the week amid relief over a $2tn emergency stimulus package.

Signs of slowdown in countries’ death rates and growth of cases

Steve Bernard in London

Every day the Covid-19 virus is infecting an increasing number of people. However, the rate of growth in countries is starting to slow.

Among countries with more than 5,000 cases, this is most visible in Spain, which two weeks ago had a growth rate above 40 per cent per day on average and has seen this number fall to about 15 per cent.

The US continues to see increases above 25 per cent per day, but have fallen from recent highs of nearly 40 per cent. Iran, one of first countries to see a major outbreak outside of China, has started to see an increase again in recent days, edging back up to nearly 10 per cent.

The same also looks to be true with deaths.

Among countries with more than 100 deaths, this slowing down is most visible in Spain, which two weeks ago had a growth rate above 50 per cent per day on average, and has seen this number fall to about 20 per cent.

Global coronavirus cases exceed 700,000

Steve Bernard in London

The total number of cases worldwide has surpassed 700,000 on Sunday as an additional 44,279 people were confirmed to have contracted coronavirus.

The US has so far added 9,516 cases in the past day to about 133,000, with 21 states still to report their numbers.

Boris Johnson tests optimistic for coronavirus 


The British isles prime minister Boris Johnson has analyzed positive for coronavirus, Downing Avenue has introduced.

Amount 10 explained Mr Johnson experienced delicate symptoms, notably a temperature and a cough, and would self-isolate for the next 7 times. But officials insisted that he would continue to lead the government’s response to the disaster.

Mr Johnson posted a online video on Twitter in which he reported the community should really “be in no doubt that I can keep on, thanks to the wizardry of present day engineering, to connect with all my prime workforce to guide the countrywide fightback from coronavirus”.

His formal spokesman explained the prime minister “will do the exact same things” but they “will be done exclusively by using teleconferencing on his component.” 

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary and 1st secretary of state, would stand in for Mr Johnson if he became incapacitated. 

Immediately after encountering gentle indicators on Thursday, Mr Johnson was tested for coronavirus by Nationwide Well being Service team on the particular suggestions of England’s chief healthcare officer, Chris Whitty. He acquired the results of the test at midnight.

© AP

All work and food items will be remaining at the doorway of Mr Johnson’s flat previously mentioned No 11 Downing Street, his official spokesman explained on Friday.

“Number 11 in its entirety will serve as the Prime Minister’s business and his house — he life higher than Variety 11 in the flat”, they mentioned.

“The doors concerning Selection 10 and Quantity 11 have been closed off to all other employees who perform in the developing. The PM will do the job from the office environment and the review in Quantity 11, which has been kindly vacated by the chancellor.

“Full video clip conferencing amenities have been set up in individuals downstairs rooms in Range 11. All Number 10 workers will observe Public Overall health England pointers on get in touch with with the PM and will of study course continue being two metres apart from him at all instances if they have been to have any call.”

Issues have been elevated around who the key minister may perhaps have arrive into call with more than the earlier couple days.

An undisclosed variety of Downing Street workers have also determined to self-isolate right after exhibiting mild indicators.

Quantity 10 indicated on Friday that Mr Johnson’s pregnant fiancée Carrie Symonds was not at this time dwelling in Downing Street, as he will be self-isolating for 7 times and not two months, which is the steering for entire homes.

Pregnant ladies are amid those people who are becoming strongly advised to self-isolate and restrict social speak to for up to three months.

Questioned on whether Ms Symonds was living in the flat, the spokesman said: “The Prime Minister of study course follows all of the recommendations which have been issued by Community Well being England in entire.

“His circumstance is this sort of that he will be needed to self-isolate for seven times.”

Govt officers confirmed that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was not exhibiting any signs or symptoms of the virus, nor was he self-isolating.

A Buckingham Palace spokesperson reported the Queen previous observed Mr Johnson about two months ago. “Her Majesty the Queen remains in superior health”, they mentioned in a assertion. “The Queen very last saw the key minister on the 11th March and is next all the suitable assistance with regards to her welfare.”

Mr Johnson’s diagnosis comes just after Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, on Wednesday turned the most well known community figure in the British isles to be verified as obtaining coronavirus.

In his video clip concept, Mr Johnson thanked “everybody who’s involved” in made up of the virus and reiterated that the public should observe the government’s social distancing and self-isolating recommendations where appropriate.

“The far more efficiently we all comply with all those actions, the speedier our nation will come by this epidemic and the a lot quicker we’ll bounce back,” he said. “So thank you to every person who’s carrying out what I’m performing, doing work from home, to end the spread of the virus from home to home. 

“That’s the way we’re likely to gain, we’re heading to beat it, and we’re likely to conquer it with each other.”

Coronavirus latest: Tokyo 2020 Olympics should be postponed by a year, Abe says


Norway’s unemployment rate hits highest since WWII

Richard Milne in Oslo

Norway’s unemployment rate has more than quadrupled in the past two weeks to reach its highest level since the second world war as the coronavirus outbreak and plunge in oil prices tests western Europe’s largest petroleum producer.

The number of unemployed has jumped from 65,000 on March 10 to 291,000 on Tuesday, resulting in an unemployment rate of 10.4 per cent, according to Norway’s labour and welfare administration (Nav).

“This is the highest unemployment rate in Norway since the second world war,” said Sigrun Vageng, director of labour and welfare at Nav.

The unemployment rate has effectively doubled in each of the past two weeks with 142,000 joining the ranks of the jobless in Norway in the past seven days.

Norway’s currency has plummeted to record lows against the US dollar and euro while the government and central bank have unveiled billion-krone rescue packages for the economy and companies.

BoE admits coronavirus disruption worse than stress test scenario

Matthew Vincent in London reports:

A Bank of England committee has admitted that the initial impact of coronavirus disruption on the financial sector will be worse than envisaged in the last UK bank stress tests.

In a summary of its last two emergency meetings, the UK central bank’s Financial Policy Committee said on Tuesday: “The disruption from Covid-19 would likely be more severe than the stress test in the first phase.”

In its 2019 test, the Bank of England’s adverse scenario envisaged a global recession, with “sharp falls in UK asset prices”, and a 30 per cent depreciation in sterling, leading to higher inflation.

However, the FPC said the impact of coronavirus on UK banks would “ultimately be less protracted and lead to less output loss overall over the course of two years” than imagined in the test.

It also noted that the big UK banks have “Tier 1” capital levels that are three times higher than before the global financial crisis, and UK households and companies still had undrawn borrowing facilities of around £140bn and £260bn respectively. A Bank of England decision to release the “buffer” capital that lenders must normally hold would support up to £190bn of bank lending to businesses, the committee added – which is 13 times the net lending to businesses last year.

Last week, the FPC agreed to cancel the 2020 UK bank stress test to help lenders focus on meeting customer needs during the economic crisis.

Aston Martin, McLaren and Lotus shut plants

Peter Campbell, Motor Industry Correspondent, reports

Aston Martin, McLaren and Lotus have all closed their plants following UK government orders of a nationwide lockdown.

They were the last remaining facilities open in Europe, after major manufacturers from Volkswagen to Toyota shuttered facilities last week in attempts to contain the spread of the coronavirus and also because of falling demand and disruption to their supply chains.

Luxury and supercar manufacturers have been less affected, partly because demand has remained stable, and also because they are able to hold more parts stock, and have workers spaced further apart than in high-volume production sites.

The UK’s luxury carmakers owned by international groups — such as VW’s Bentley or BMW’s Rolls Royce — had already closed last week, while Ferrari and Lamborghini were both forced to close their sites in Italy after the spread of the disease in that country.

Lotus told staff on Monday evening, in the wake of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that everyone bar crucial workers must stay at home, that its site will close.

McLaren’s announcement came on Tuesday morning, while Aston Martin’s announcement was made around lunchtime.


Estimated hit to airlines revised upwards to $250bn

Peggy Hollinger, International Business Editor reports:

The world’s airlines face losing more than $250bn in revenue — a more than 40 per cent fall on 2019 — due to the widening global crackdown on travel as countries fight against the spread of the coronavirus.

The forecast is the third estimate in less than a month from Iata, the global trade body, which only days ago estimated the hit at $113bn — already a revision of the initial $30bn expectation at the start of the crisis.

The difference is a dramatic extension of travel restrictions in recent days covering roughly 98 per cent of passenger revenues, said Brian Pearce, Iata’s chief economist. Capacity was expected to be some 90 per cent down in Europe alone, and a number of airlines in the region could be vulnerable to collapse.

The announcement comes as Ryanair, Europe’s biggest low cost airline, grounds its entire fleet from today and as governments around the world consider rescue packages for the aviation industry. The UK is expected to unveil its package, possibly as early as today.

Mr Pearce said the industry also faced a slower recovery than had been experienced in previous pandemics.

We have never seen a pandemic coincide with a deep global recession, which is now expected … it will almost certainly … delay recovery. It will be a much more gradual slope.”

Saudi Arabia reports first death

Ahmed Al Omran in Riyadh writes:

Saudi Arabia announced its first death from the coronavirus as the kingdom reported a jump in the number of confirmed cases on Tuesday.

A health ministry spokesman said a 51-year-old male from Afghanistan with pre-existing conditions died after visiting the emergency room of a hospital in the holy city of Medina with advanced symptoms.

205 new cases were reported on the first day after Saudi Arabia started imposing a night-time curfew, bringing the total number of cases in the kingdom to 767.

UK spending review delayed with no date set

Sebastian Payne in London

The UK’s comprehensive spending review, due to take place this autumn, has been delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak, the chancellor said at the cabinet’s weekly meeting.

The next spending round, which sets the budget for Whitehall departments for the next three years, was due to follow Rishi Sunak’s first Budget that he gave two weeks ago. It was expected to loosen the Treasury’s fiscal rules to allow the government to increase spending. No new date has been set.

The government remains “focused on responding to the public health and economic emergency”, Mr Sunak told the cabinet on Tuesday.

Chris Whitty, chief medical officer, updated ministers on the virus outbreak and Boris Johnson reiterated that it was “vital that the public followed the instructions issued by the government on the need to stay at home”.

Tuesday’s meeting was the first time that the cabinet gathered virtually. Four people were present in Downing Street: the prime minister, health secretary Matt Hancock, cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill and Professor Whitty. Other ministers joined the meeting through Zoom, a popular secure video conferencing service.

Moscow mayor warns Russian cases higher than statistics show

Henry Foy in Moscow reports:

Moscow’s mayor has warned Vladimir Putin that Russia’s low coronavirus case count does not tell the full picture, telling the president that “a serious story is unfolding”.

Russia announced 57 new cases on Tuesday to take its total to 495, far lower than other major European countries. Its official statistics have drawn scepticism from some experts who question its methodology and scale of testing.

“We see that quite a lot of people are at home, who came from abroad, they are simply not tested,” Sergei Sobyanin told Mr Putin at a meeting of senior officials. “But really [the number of] those who are sick – it is much more.”

“All regions [of the country] without exception, regardless of whether they have patients, no patients, everyone needs to prepare,” he said.

Poland imposes sweeping restrictions on movement

James Shotter in Warsaw reports:

Poland has ratcheted up its restrictions on movement and gatherings in an effort to slow the accelerating spread of coronavirus.

Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that under the new rules, which will apply from today until April 11, people would only be allowed to leave their homes for essential work, visits to the doctor or pharmacy, to buy food, or to walk the dog.

Gatherings of more than two people will be banned, although families who live together will be excluded, and the ban does not prevent people from travelling to help relatives in need.

Mr Morawiecki told an online press conference:

We are taking this decision to buy ourselves time … We are buying time for all of us, to prepare the health system better … to prepare the next hospitals for all eventualities.

Mr Morawiecki said that Poland would also introduce “electronic measures” to ensure that people were abiding by quarantines.

Poland was one of the first countries to close its borders, limit gatherings and order non-essential shops to close. But in recent days, other countries, such as the UK and Germany, have gone further in limiting gatherings, and Poland’s move brings it in line with such countries.

Olympics should be postponed by a year, Abe says

Leo Lewis and Kana Inagaki in Tokyo

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proposed to the International Olympic Committee that the Tokyo 2020 games be postponed by one year, ending weeks of mounting criticism and marking the first time the event has been called off during peacetime.

Mr Abe suggested the delay during a lengthy phone call on Tuesday with IOC president Thomas Bach. The proposal will be discussed at a meeting of the IOC’s executive board later on Tuesday.

“In order to ensure that athletes can play under the best conditions and to make it a safe Games for the audience, I have proposed that (the IOC) consider an approximate delay of one year,” Mr Abe told reporters after the call, adding that Mr Bach “agreed 100 per cent” with his suggestion.

In light of the spread of the coronavirus infections worldwide, Mr Abe said it would be difficult to carry out the event by the end of the year.

“We agreed that the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics would be carried out by the summer of 2021 at the latest,” he said. “We will firmly carry out our responsibilities as a host nation.”

888 revenues jump as punters shift to online gambling

Alice Hancock, Leisure Industries Correspondent, reports:

Shares in the online gambling company 888 jumped 34 per cent in lunchtime trading in London, after the company said that average daily revenue in 2019 was 18 per cent ahead of the previous year and that customers turning to online poker and casino would offset some of the losses incurred by the lack of betting on sports events.

Several betting companies including Flutter, the owner of Paddy Power, and GVC, owner of Ladbrokes Coral, have warned that the mass cancellation and postponement of sports events would hit earnings by up to £150m this year.

However, 888 is less exposed to sports than its two larger rivals. Its sports brand accounted for 16 per cent of revenues last year compared with a 78 per cent reliance on sport at Flutter.

888 estimated that the potential impact of sports cancellations would be “up to high single digit millions of dollars”.

It also warned that with “people spending more time at home and with potentially increased stress from economic uncertainty”, gambling companies would have to be more vigilant to gambling harm.

US stock futures signal higher open on Wall Street

US stock futures hit their upper trading limit on Tuesday signalling Wall Street was set to rebound at the open.

S&P 500 futures jumped 5 per cent to hit their upper trading limit and were recently up 4.1 per cent. Nasdaq 100 futures were up 3.9 per cent.

US equities declined on Monday after Democrats blocked an almost $2tn economic stimulus package for the second time. However, reports that an agreement was close helped boost optimism on Wall Street on Tuesday.

Sentiment was also boosted by the Federal Reserve’s latest effort to bolster the economy, after the central bank pledged to buy government bonds in unlimited amounts.

Markets in Europe and Asia advanced with the Stoxx 600 up 4.6 per cent and the FTSE 100 up 4.2 per cent. Meanwhile, the CSI 300 climbed 2.7 per cent and the Hang Seng increased 4.5 per cent in overnight trade.

GM follows rival Ford as it draws $16bn credit facility

Peter Campbell, global motor industry correspondent

General Motors is drawing its $16bn credit facility as it looks to shore up finances while its heartland car plants are closed in North America.

“This is a proactive measure to increase GM’s cash position and preserve financial flexibility in light of current uncertainty in global markets resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic,” the company said on Tuesday.

The funds will supplement the company’s strong cash position of approximately $15bn to $16bn expected at the end of March.

The carmaker withdrew its financial guidance for the year, the latest business to cancel its outlook because of the uncertainty about when its operations will, if ever, return to normal.

Ford last week drew its $15.4bn facility and scrapped its dividend to preserve cash.

GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler last week closed their plants across North America. Every plant in Europe has also closed, although GM exited that market several years ago.

GM chief executive Mary Barra said: “We are aggressively pursuing austerity measures to preserve cash and are taking necessary steps in this changing and uncertain environment to manage our liquidity, ensure the ongoing viability of our operations and protect our customers and stakeholders.”

Iran orders public sector employees to return to work

Monavar Khalaj in Tehran reports:

Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani has said that the public sector should resume work as state-run organisations reopened on Tuesday.

Of the government’s 2.5m employees, about 1.2m working in education and related fields have been operating on a limited basis or not at all as schools and universities remain closed. They will continue to do so until educational institutions reopen in early April. Those in “sensitive jobs” such as doctors have continued to work.

But Mr Rouhani said on Tuesday that a third group of government employees who have not been working in recent days due to public holidays should return to work in shifts. “Each time one-third of them should do the job and the remaining two-thirds could be on leave,” he said.

This group — roughly 500,000 in number — includes the employees of some banks or staff of different ministries such as telecommunications and the foreign ministry.

The president’s comments came as the country celebrated the New Iranian Year on March 20. Despite appeals by officials for Iranians to stay home, about 8.5m Iranians travelled for vacations.

A health ministry spokesperson told reporters on Tuesday that the Islamic republic was set to begin a new plan to further restrict social contacts between Iranians, with details to be released either today or tomorrow.

Iran’s health ministry said on Tuesday that fatalities reached 1,934 from 1,812 on Monday while 24,811 individuals tested positive.

ArcelorMittal says Ukraine lockdown risks triggering ‘disaster’

Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv reports:

ArcelorMittal, Ukraine’s top investor and owner of the country’s largest steel mill, is urging the country’s government to stop short of declaring a state of emergency.

The company said it was “really worried about the possible toughening of restrictive measures”, which could happen in a vote in parliament on Thursday.

ArcelorMittal said:

If the work of the majority of large companies in the country is stopped, [if] business is deprived of its sales channels, it will become a social disaster. Millions of Ukrainians risk losing jobs fast, and the budget can lose a large part of its income.

Exports of steel, agriculture commodities, foods and programmed software account for the lion’s share of Ukraine’s hard currency earnings.

Though ArcelorMittal stands to lose in case of a full shutdown of its Ukrainian steel factory, its concerns are shared by many in the broader foreign investment and business community.

On Monday, the Kyiv-based European Business Association and other lobby groups said a full shutdown would mean “millions of Ukrainians will lose their jobs”.

Pakistan texts high-risk citizens in ‘corona alert’ messages

Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad

Pakistan’s health officials are texting high-risk citizens to adopt precautionary measures immediately as cases rise more than 11 times higher than a fortnight ago, a government official said.

Pakistani troops meanwhile fanned out across the country on Tuesday to support the civilian administration in enforcing a lockdown.

The “corona alert” messages, in English and urdu, advise mobile phone owners who have been picked by the history of their use and visits to locations where cases of coronavirus have been detected.

Six people have died from the virus while cases have risen to more than 890.

The use of mobile phones to track high-risk users has been adopted by other countries as the spread of the virus has overwhelmed healthcare officials.

Chevron slashes spending and halts share buybacks

Derek Brower, US energy editor, reports:

US oil producer Chevron is making sweeping cuts to its spending plans for this year and will ditch its share-buyback programme, the latest supermajor to retreat in the face of collapsing oil prices and the coronavirus hit to global crude demand.

Capex will fall by $4bn, or 20 per cent, to $16bn with reductions across the portfolio, the company said. On an annual run-rate basis, the reductions in upstream spending imposed now will equate to a 30 per cent drop compared with the budget announced in December. The $5bn annual share buy-back programme would be suspended, it said.

Chevron said it would “continue to execute” plans to reduce operating costs by more than $1bn by the end of the year.

Half of the capex cuts will be made in the US’s prolific Permian shale, which three weeks ago Chevron made the centrepiece of a growth strategy that would have delivered $75bn to $80bn in payments to shareholders over the next five years.

Although Chevron said total production would be roughly flat this year compared with 2019, its Permian oil output will be 20 per cent, or 125,000 b/d, below guidance by the end of 2020.

Chevron chief Mike Wirth said the company’s spending cuts would allow it to “preserve cash, support our balance sheet strength, lower short-term production, and preserve long-term value”.

Like other oil producers, Chevron has been battered by a halving of the oil price since early January. Its shares have fallen by about 55 per cent since the start of the year. Total and Shell both announced capex cuts and share buy-back suspensions yesterday.

Ryanair offers use of aircraft for emergency transport

Peggy Hollinger in London reports:

Ryanair, Europe’s biggest low-cost airline, has offered its aircraft to EU governments for emergency transport of people and goods as it grounds its fleet for two months in the wake of restrictions on international travel.

The group, which has more than 300 aircraft in its fleet, said it would also work with European authorities to return stranded passengers despite the grounding as governments battle the spread of the coronavirus. But these would be minimal and take place under strict hygiene conditions.

“At this time, no one knows how long this Covid shutdown will last,” said Ryanair’s chief executive Michael O’Leary.

The experience in China suggests a 3-month period for the spread of the virus to be contained and reduced. We will do everything we can to keep our aircraft, our crews, and our engineering teams operational so that when Europe defeats this Covid-19 pandemic, we are ready to return to flying.

Ryanair’s decision to ground its fleet comes as authorities in the UK are preparing a support package for the aviation and aerospace sectors. This could include the state taking stakes in airlines, or some form of loan secured on airline assets such as airport take-off and landing slots.

Ryanair’s low-cost rival easyJet on Monday still operated some 100 flights, a significant reduction on the 2,000 that would be normal for this time of year. The group is reviewing its flight schedule on a daily basis and a person with knowledge of the situation said it was possible there would be no flights by the end of the week.

Restrictions placed on English prisons include ban on visits

Bethan Staton in London reports:

Prisons in England and Wales will from Tuesday limit inmate movements and suspend visits to staunch the spread of the coronavirus.

News of the restrictions came via the Prison Officers Association, which on Tuesday said it praised the justice ministry’s “sensible decision” to clamp down on prisons.

The rules will allow prisoners out of locked cells only for showers, phone calls and exercise. Visits, education and workshop activities will be suspended.

The restrictions, though “inevitable”, should “be accompanied by extra communication, making sure people have activities in their cells, phones to family, and compassion”, tweeted Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, a prison rights charity.

A handful of confirmed cases have prompted concern over the spread of coronavirus in prisons, where poor health infrastructure and confinement could worsen the impact of an outbreak.

Twelve countries turn to IMF for financial assistance

Simeon Kerr in Dubai

A dozen countries in the Middle East, North Africa and central Asia have approached the IMF for financial assistance to help limit the human and financial cost of the coronavirus.

Jihad Azour, the IMF’s regional director, said the fund was considering a request from the Kyrgyz Republic for emergency financing, which would likely form the first disbursement since the outbreak. A few other requests would be considered in the coming days.

“Now, more than ever, international cooperation is vital to prevent lasting economic scars,” he wrote in a blog post.

Mr Azour said the pandemic has caused blows of lower demand, reduced trade, disrupted production, a fall in consumer confidence and tighter financial conditions. Oil exporters face the additional hit of crude prices plummeting by more than 50 per cent since the health crisis began.

The challenge is especially daunting for conflict-torn states, such as Iraq, Sudan and Yemen, where health systems are weak and their economies vulnerable to substantial price increases for medical and other goods.

Belgium in ‘heart of the pandemic’, officials say

Jim Brunsden in Brussels

Belgium has said it is living through “the heart of the pandemic” after the number of deaths linked to the virus jumped by close to 40 per cent.

The government’s crisis centre said on Tuesday that the death toll for those who had tested positive for coronavirus had risen by 34 in the past 24 hours to a total of 122. The number may have been pushed up by a lag in when some deaths were reported, the authorities said.

“Unfortunately, the figures we have just seen show us in a very painful way that we are today fully in this emergency situation, in full pandemic,” said a spokesman for the crisis centre.

Urging people to respect lockdown conditions, he said: “We have one chance now to act, because we are in the heart of this pandemic.”

The number of people hospitalised because of the virus rose to 1,859 on Monday, an increase of 256 compared with the previous day, the health ministry said. The rate of new hospitalisations slowed for the third successive day but the number of those going into intensive care — 59 — was higher than recent days.

More than 500 die in Spain in past 24 hours

Daniel Dombey in Madrid

More than 500 people have died in Spain in the past 24 hours after contracting the coronavirus, figures released on Tuesday show.

Spain, with almost 40,000 cases of the virus, is the worst affected European country after Italy.

The Ministry of Health said that 2,696 people have died, a 23 per cent increase on Monday’s toll of 2,182. The total of 39,673 cases represents a 20 per cent climb over the past 24 hours, while the number of people in intensive care rose by 12 per cent to 2,636. At present, 3,794 people have recovered.

Madrid remains the worst affected region with 12,352 cases, 1,050 people in intensive care and 1,535 deaths.

UK housebuilder Taylor Wimpey calls a halt to construction

George Hammond, Property Correspondent, reports:

Taylor Wimpey, one of the UK’s largest housebuilders, is shutting down all of its construction sites in response to the coronavirus.

The government’s stricter measures, announced by the prime minister on Monday night, do not include the closure of building sites, and Taylor Wimpey is the first housebuilder to announce such a move.

Barratt Developments is also in the process of closing its 400 or so sites across the UK, according to the company, which is yet to make an announcement on the closures. Rival housebuilder Redrow said on Tuesday it would keep sites open, albeit with stricter precautions.

Taylor Wimpey, which built 15,520 homes last year, has also drawn down its revolving credit facility of £550m in order to bolster its cash position, suspended its annual dividend and scrapped its financial guidance as a result of the virus’ spread.

The government’s advice on construction sites had been “anything but clear” said Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders. He added:

Mixed messages are spreading further anxiety at a time when hundreds of small builders face immediate lost earnings, having to make their staff redundant, and seeing their companies go to the wall.

Labour MP David Lammy called on the government to “shut down construction sites and make sure other non-essential work is not happening”.

French finance minister compares crisis to Great Depression

Victor Mallet in Paris

The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic is “comparable only to the great recession of 1929”, French finance minister Bruno Le Maire said on Tuesday.

He declined to predict how much the French economy would shrink as a result of the crisis, but said industry was only operating at 25 per cent of its normal level. “Each week of extra lockdown, each additional month of the epidemic, worsens the growth outlook,” he said. “The chemicals industry is working well, but the motor industry has almost stopped.”

Mr Le Maire and French President Emmanuel Macron have said they will do whatever it takes to save the country’s jobs and businesses, including nationalising fragile companies, providing state-financed loan guarantees and temporary unemployment benefits, and postponing tax and social security payments.

Mr Le Maire also said the crisis had exposed Europe’s excessive trade dependence on other countries and should be used as opportunity to remedy the failings of global capitalism. “In the long term,” he said, “we cannot depend on Asia, on China for goods that are strategic for us.”

Ineos to build hand sanitiser plants in UK and Germany

Michael Pooler reports:

The chemicals manufacturer Ineos is to build hand sanitiser plants at its existing sites in the UK and Germany within the next 10 days, with capacity to produce 2m bottles a month to help combat the spread of the coronavirus.

The company controlled by billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe said it would concentrate on meeting the needs of frontline medical and care services, with the product to be issued free of charge to NHS hospitals for the duration of the Covid-19 outbreak.

A shortage of hand gels in Europe has led to beer brewers, gin distilleries and high-end perfume makers converting production to make sanitiser, after the World Health Organization advised people to regularly wash their hands with alcohol-based products.

Ineos is one of the main European producers of the two key raw materials for hand rubs – isopropyl alcohol (IPA) and ethanol. It will produce 250ml pump pots of hand sanitiser and smaller 50ml pocket bottles at its sites in Middlesbrough, northern England, and Herne in Germany.

Federal Swiss government clashes with cantons over restrictions

Sam Jones in Zurich reports:

Switzerland’s federal government has pushed back on calls from its cantons for a stronger clampdown on public life in the wealthy alpine state, as cases of the novel coronavirus surged past 8,000.

Switzerland’s constitution is designed to give its 26 cantons and their residents as much liberty from Bern as possible: but in a stark illustration of the way the global pandemic is upending political and social norms, some of the country’s most conservative — and smallest — constituencies are those demanding tougher restrictions be imposed by a hesitant central government.

Shops selling non-essential goods have been ordered to close, alongside restaurants, bars and other public spaces. Gatherings of more than five people, even outdoors, are prohibited. But many feel the measures do not go far enough.

On Tuesday, Bern turned down a request from doctors in Verbier to place the local area under special measures. Despite ski slopes being closed, Verbier and surrounding villages are still thronging with wealthy second-home owners from Geneva and France, doctors said.

Bern has already told the cantons of Ticino and Uri that some of their measures are too stringent. The Ticino cantonal government ordered all non-essential factories and production lines to close as of this Monday. The Federal Ministry of Justice has told the canton the move is illegal and cannot be enforced.

A restriction ordered by the canton of Uri telling those over 65 to stay at home is also outside the local government’s power to enforce, ministry officials said at the weekend.

Goldman Sachs predicts 9 per cent decline in eurozone economy

Martin Arnold in Frankfurt:

Goldman Sachs has slashed its growth forecast for the eurozone, warning that the region’s coronavirus-crippled economy is likely to contract by 9 per cent this year and that budget deficits are likely to mushroom in many countries.

The US investment bank said in a note to clients on Tuesday morning that it expected the eurozone economy to shrink by 4 per cent in the first quarter and 11.4 per cent in the second. Its economists blamed “strict containment measures, anecdotal evidence of steep declines in domestic activity and a global recession” for the sharp decline in forecasts.

The deepest contractions would be in Italy and Spain, which Goldman predicted would shrink by 11.6 per cent and 9.7 per cent this year respectively. It added that Germany’s economy would contract by 8.9 per cent, the UK by 7.5 per cent and France by 7.4 per cent.

The Wall Street bank forecast that Germany and France would make a swifter recovery than their southern counterparts because they have announced “significantly more fiscal support for the economy” and they rely less on harder-hit tourism than on manufacturing, which is likely to rebound faster.

European PMIs understate depth of crisis, economists say

European business activity crumbled in March, according to figures that point to a deep recession ahead.

But economists warn that worse is yet to come, as the PMI surveys were compiled before much of the continent went into lockdown and are likely understating the breadth of the breakdown in economic activity.

“The PMI plummeted in March, of course it did. Only a foolish optimist would have expected otherwise,” said ING senior economist Bert Colijn.

The survey likely still understates March activity as more restrictive measures came into effect after the survey was conducted. It also doesn’t tell us much about the depth of the decline

Jack Allen-Reynolds, senior economist at Capital Economics, said the slump was so bad “that at any other time it would look like a spreadsheet error.”

Given that survey responses were collected between March 12-23, before some of the lockdown measures had been implemented, if they remain in place the data for April will be far worse.

European markets gain ground as sentiment strengthens

European investors shrugged off weak economic data, as a more upbeat sentiment rippled across international markets.

The benchmark European Stoxx 600 index gained 4.85 per cent in early trading on Tuesday, while London’s FTSE 100 gained 4.26 per cent, continue its rise even after new data showed UK business activity is shrinking at a record pace.

Frankfurt’s Dax index gained more than 6 per cent in spite of data showing activity in Germany’s private sector shrank at a rapid rate in March. Similarly, Paris’s benchmark Cac 40 index secured gains of 5.12 per cent after new data showed France had seen its biggest decline in output on record.

Investors are rushing back to stocks after the Federal Reserve’s announcement yesterday that it will buy unlimited amounts of government debt to keep the economy going and jobs safe.

US stock futures markets pointed to a 5.1 per cent rise for the S&P 500 benchmark later in the day, the maximum amount the futures index is permitted to rise.

UK hotels to shut as part of lockdown

Alice Hancock in London reports:

The UK’s enforced lockdown has been extended to hotels, except those that have permanent residents or that host key workers, the government said.

Along with restaurants, pubs, hairdressers, cafes and workplace canteens, hotels are being asked to shut from Tuesday in order to slow the spread of coronavirus.

B&Bs, campsites, hostels and caravan parks are also included in the government’s ban except “where people live in these as interim abodes whilst their primary residence is unavailable”. Key workers, which include frontline health service staff and food industry employees, are also able to stay in hotels that remain open.

Despite hotels being closed, takeaway and delivery services in restaurants have been permitted to remain in operation as they are deemed a crucial way for people to access hot food.

Analysts at Bernstein downgraded their base case for global hotel occupancy on Monday from a 50 per cent drop in revenues from international travellers and a 10 per cent drop in domestic trade to an 80 per cent drop “nearly everywhere”.

Business activity in the UK shrinks at record pace

Valentina Romei reports:

UK business activity contracted at a record rate, according to a closely watched survey that provides the first and most comprehensive indication of the extent of the hit to the economy caused by the coronavirus.

The IHS Markit flash UK purchasing managers’ index for services plunged to 35.7 in March from 53.2 in the previous month. The figure is the lowest since the survey began in the 1990s and it points to a sharp deterioration of the domestic economy.

The latest PMI figures were compiled in advance of the UK government’s decision to order pubs, restaurants and other leisure businesses to close by midnight on 20th March and before Monday’s announcement of the closure of all non-essential shops.

Services account for about 80 per cent of the economy and their fall in activity dragged down the composite index, an average of manufacturing and services, to 37.1 in March, also the lowest ever recorded and down from 53 the previous month.

The flash PMI also signaled a fall in employment across the manufacturing and services sectors to a level not seen since July 2009.

Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit, said:

The surveys highlight how the COVID-19 outbreak has already dealt the UK economy an initial blow even greater than that seen at the height of the global financial crisis. Any growth was confined to small pockets of the economy such as food manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and healthcare. Demand elsewhere has collapsed, both for goods and services, as increasing numbers of households and businesses at home and abroad close their doors.

Slovakia to use mobile phone data to enforce quarantine rules

James Shotter in Warsaw reports:

Slovakia is to pass a law to allow the use of data from mobile phones to ensure that citizens are observing the quarantine rules introduced to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

The country’s new prime minister, Igor Matovic, who took office at the weekend, said that his government would discuss the measure today, before presenting it to parliament.

The step would be the latest in a series of radical moves that Slovakia has taken to try and stem the spread of the outbreak, which has so far infected 204 people in the central European nation.

Slovakia has closed it borders, banned international rail and air travel, introduced strict quarantines for Slovaks returning from abroad, as well as for those who have been in contact with people infected by the novel virus. It has also closed schools and non-essential shops.

Indian neighbourhoods draw up their own rules

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi reports:

With a curfew now in force across large swaths of India, various middle-class residential neighbourhood societies and apartment complex boards are taking matters into their own hands to decide who and what will be allowed to enter their colonies and compounds.

The government has permitted essential services — including groceries, pharmacies, and e-commerce companies — to continue operating to ensure that a population now confined to their homes can obtain the necessities of daily life.

But powerful residential societies are now setting terms and conditions for their own areas, amid growing public panic about the spread of the virus. These bodies appear torn between a desire to shut themselves in and exclude all outsiders — and the reality of their dependence on vendors to provide doorstep delivery of fresh fruit, vegetables and milk.

In some neighbourhoods, societies have remained relatively open, allowing vendors carrying fruits, or milk suppliers deliver directly to homes and apartments. Elsewhere, food vendors have been allowed but newspaper deliveries have been stopped, after virulent Whatsapp rumours that coronavirus was spreading through newspapers.

Some neighbourhoods and buildings have locked their gates and are attempting to seal themselves off from the outside world, barring all outsiders from entering, raising questions about how they will obtain essential supplies during a curfew due to last until March 31, at least.

Debates have also raged in many neighbourhood about whether maids and other domestic helpers, such as essential caregivers, should be permitted to enter. In the absence of clear government guidelines, it appears to be every neighbourhood — or apartment complex — for itself.

European markets shrug off weak economic data

European markets have shrugged off weak eurozone production data, as a more upbeat sentiment rippled across the globe.

The benchmark European Stoxx 600 index gained 3.84 per cent since the opening bell on Tuesday, while London’s FTSE 100 gained 3.67 per cent.

Frankfurt’s Dax index shed some of the 6 per cent it gained in the first hour of trading, but held on to a 4.8 per cent rise in spite of data showing activity in Germany’s private sector shrunk at a rapid rate in March.

Similarly, Paris’s benchmark Cac 40 index secured gains of 3.39 per cent after IHS Markit’s purchasing managers’ index for France announced the country’s biggest decline in output on record, from 51.9 points last month to 30.2 in March.

British public overwhelmingly support lockdown measures

Sebastian Payne, Whitehall Correspondent, reports:

The UK has woken up to a new reality this morning, with the country in lockdown, all non-essential shops shuttered and significant limits introduced on gatherings and the movement of citizens. It’s the first time in the country’s recent history that such stringent restrictions on individuals have been introduced.

But the country is very supportive of Boris Johnson’s decision to bring in these new measures. According to a snap poll by YouGov, a huge 93 per cent of Britons support the prime minister’s latest efforts to tackle the spread of coronavirus.

The vast majority of all age and social groups support the lockdown, but women are more likely to support it than men. The same is true for older people: 80 per cent of those over 65 compared to 60 per cent of those 18-24 year olds.

The nation is also feeling positive about surviving the lockdown. Two thirds of the people think it will be “easy” to get through the initial three weeks, compared to 29 per cent think it will be “hard”. Those numbers could begin to shift if the restrictions remain in place for longer.

But one area of division is whether the police have enough powers to enforce the tough new restrictions. 39 per cent of Brits think their powers are sufficient to see through the lockdown, but 39 per cent think they are not. Again, older people are more likely to say they need more powers whereas young people think their current powers are enough.

Eurozone business activity ‘collapses’ in March

Valentina Romei reports:

Business activity crashed to a record low in the eurozone as the coronavirus health emergency morphed into an economic crisis.

The IHS Markit flash composite purchasing managers’ index for the eurozone plunged to 31.4 in March from 51.6 in the previous month. This is the lowest reading since the series began in the late 1990s.

“Business activity across the eurozone collapsed in March to an extent far exceeding that seen even at the height of the global financial crisis” said Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit. “Steep downturns were seen in France, Germany and across the rest of the euro area as governments took increasingly tough measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus”.

The PMI index for services dropped to 28.4 in March from 52.6 in February, the lowest level ever recorded, pointing to a near shutdown of the domestic economy.

The manufacturing sector contracted at a marginally slower pace with a corresponding index falling to 44.8, the lowest since the financial crisis.

The composite index is a weighted average of activity in the manufacturing and services sectors and a reading below 50 indicating the majority of businesses reporting a deterioration compared to the previous month. The PMIs are the first and most comprehensive measure of the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the economy since the outbreak in the region at the end of February.

The preliminary data were based on responses collected between March 12-23.

Biggest rise yet in global cases as US infections surge

Steve Bernard in London reports:

Monday saw the largest single daily rise in the number of Covid-19 cases. 41,371 cases were diagnosed yesterday and the global total has now reached 382,552. The death toll rose by a record 1,873 to stand at 16,578.

For the second day running the US was hardest hit, adding 10,168 cases, the highest rise in a single day outside of China.

Italy once again saw a fall in the number of new cases, adding 4,789 cases on Monday, down from 6,557 two days earlier. Spain however, saw a large spike in cases yesterday adding 6,368 to stand at 35,212.

The daily number of recoveries rose slightly yesterday with 3,442 more people free from the virus. The total now stands at 102,069.

Iran rejects MSF assistance building hospitals

Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Monavar Khalaj in Tehran report:

Iran has said it does not need Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to set up makeshift hospitals in the country following opposition by hardline forces to the presence of foreign doctors in the country.

Domestic media reported that a nine-member team from the Geneva-based humanitarian medical organisation had arrived in the central city of Isfahan – one of the worst-hit provinces – this week to set up makeshift hospitals.

However, some hardline groups expressed concerns over their presence, alleging that the US could use it as an opportunity to collect information about Iran’s health sector.

“Any moment that Iran needs, we will use capabilities of international humanitarian organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières which intend to assist the country … and we welcome that,” said Hamidreza Jamshidi, secretary of Iran’s national headquarters to fight coronavirus on Tuesday.

“For now, we do not need makeshift hospitals. We may need it in three or 10 days but we have enough beds now,” he added.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed on Sunday that the spread of coronavirus in Iran could be a form biological warfare by the US. He warned against providing what he saw as opportunities for any further collection of information.

It is not clear yet if the MSF group has already left the country or not.

Mr Jamshidi said many of Iran’s 140,000 hospital beds remain empty, while makeshift hospitals set up across the country by the armed forces have yet to be heavily used. Iran is expecting a new wave of casualties in the coming weeks.

Goldman tells clients to invest in gold amid Fed’s bond buying spree

Neil Hume in London reports:

Gold was higher again on Tuesday after Goldman Sachs told clients it was “time to buy the currency of last resort.”

Jeffrey Currie, head of commodities research at the bank, said the decision by the US Federal Reserve to buy unlimited amounts of government bonds would fuel concern currency “debasement concerns” and boost the price of the yellow metal.

We have long argued that gold is the currency of last resort, acting as a hedge against currency debasement when policy-makers act to accommodate shocks such as the one being experienced now.

Like other asset classes, gold was hit hard in the scramble for US dollars, falling more than 12 per cent from its early March peak of around $1,700 a troy ounce as investors liquidated positions.

That pressure was exacerbated by the steep decline of the oil price, which saw big producer nations like Russia shift from being net buyers of gold to a “possible” net seller, according to Goldman.

However, with those stresses easing after the US Federal Reserve opened swap lines with other central banks and launched unlimited quantitative easing, gold has discovered its lustre.

It rose more than 4 per cent on Monday and was up a further 2 per cent to $1,583 on Tuesday.

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German business activity plummets in March

Martin Arnold reports:

Business activity in Germany has contracted sharply in March due to the coronavirus outbreak, according to a closely watched survey, which found the number of companies saying they were still expanding output had plummeted.

The IHS Markit composite purchasing managers’ index for Germany fell from 50.7 points last month to 37.2 in March, its biggest fall on record, underlining how the sudden shutdown of swaths of the economy has caused many European businesses to grind to a halt.

By dropping further than expected below the crucial level of 50, under which the majority of companies surveyed are reporting a shrinking of activity, the data show how the German economy has been crippled by the unprecedented efforts to tackle the pandemic.

Germany has responded to the rapid spread of the virus by imposing a nationwide ban on gatherings of more than two people, except for families and household members, while requiring people to keep 1.5m apart in public.

Olaf Scholz, the German finance minister, said on Monday the German economy would shrink by 5 per cent this year as the pandemic spreads in the country where it has infected more than 26,000 people and left 110 dead.

The composite PMI for France, the eurozone’s second-biggest economic, fell by an even larger amount than Germany when it was released earlier on Tuesday, dropping from 52 points last month to 30.2 in March.

Mayor of London urges people to avoid rush hour trains

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has urged the public to avoid rush hour transport in the capital, as scenes of overcrowding continue despite the government’s efforts to restrict movement.

Mr Khan said staff illness and self-isolation meant Transport for London cannot run more services than it is at present, and told commuters to stagger their use of the Underground to help avoid crowding.

The Mayor added that many of those still travelling would be working in the gig economy.

“A proper package of support for these workers would alleviate this situation and help public transport, and I’ve raised this with the government,” he said.

https://twitter.com/SadiqKhan/status/1242362908841054209?s=20

Sports Direct ordered to close stores

Jim Pickard in London reports:

The government has ordered Sports Direct to close down its stores – after the sportswear retailer sought to claim that it was providing a crucial service – amid lingering confusion in some quarters about the UK government’s new clampdown on movement.

Boris Johnson on Monday night bowed to pressure and announced the closure of all non-essential shops, ordered people to stay at home and said the police would get new powers to disrupt gatherings of more than two individuals.

Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office secretary, said on Tuesday morning that people should work from home “wherever possible” to stop the spread of the virus.
There were reports on Tuesday morning that commuters were still enduring packed conditions on some carriages on the London Underground.

In circumstances where it was still necessary to move out of the house – such as a plumber visiting a vulnerable elderly person – they should maintain a distance of at least two metres, Mr Gove told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

Mr Gove said work was still continuing on construction sites but the way that builders did their jobs would alter to take account of the virus. The minister also hinted that the government is close to announcing its package of measures for up to 5m self-employed people.

Mr Gove urged people to stay indoors as much as possible, saying: “The most important thing is to restrict social contact.”

Thailand to impose state of emergency

John Reed in Bangkok reports:

Prayuth Chan-ocha’s Thai government will on Thursday declare a state of emergency under a decree giving it broad powers to fight the coronavirus outbreak, including the right to censor media.

Mr Prayuth said in a TV address on Tuesday that he would be enacting the 2005 Royal Decree on Emergency Situations, which will also give the prime minister the right to impose a nationwide curfew, restrict travel and prohibit public gatherings.

Mr Prayuth, the former military dictator who was elected prime minister last year after an election marred by accusations of vote-rigging, has come under criticism on Thai social and online media for his government’s piecemeal response to the pandemic.

Thailand has not yet imposed a nationwide lockdown of the kind seen in other countries, but Bangkok’s regional government has closed most malls and other public places.

Separately on Tuesday Thailand’s powerful military released a video showing General Apirat Kongsompong strolling through Bangkok wearing protective gear, set to the soundtrack of the song “Heroes Tonight”.

Sweden’s financial regulator urges banks to stop dividend payments

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic Correspondent

Sweden’s financial regulator urged banks to stop paying dividends to help protect the Scandinavian country’s financial system from the effects of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Financial Supervisory Authority said on Tuesday morning that it expected banks and other credit institutions to halt shareholder payouts, putting particular pressure on Handelsbanken, one of Sweden’s largest lenders that is due to hold its annual meeting on Wednesday and has yet to change its dividend proposal.

The other big Swedish banks – SEB and Swedbank – have delayed their annual meetings and said they are considering cutting their dividends. Nordea, the other large bank active in Sweden, recently moved its headquarters to Finland, but also announced plans to delay its annual meeting.

Countries around the world have suspended their dividends due to coronavirus as they seek to conserve cash. In the Nordics, the need to shore up balance sheets has come alongside heavy political and regulatory pressure on companies to suspend payouts as economies deteriorate rapidly.

“It is important that companies now act responsibly and strengthen their resilience in this critical situation,” said Erik Thedeen, head of the Swedish regulator.

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French private sector activity tumbles at sharpest pace on record

Martin Arnold reports:

Business activity in France has plummeted at a record pace this month, according to a closely watched survey that gives the clearest indication so far of the blow dealt to Europe’s economy by the coronavirus pandemic.

The IHS Markit purchasing managers’ index for France fell from 51.9 points last month to 30.2 in March, its biggest fall on record, underlining how the sudden shutdown of large parts of the economy to combat the virus has caused many European businesses to grind to a halt.

By dropping further than expected below the crucial level of 50, under which the majority of companies surveyed are reporting a shrinking of activity, the data underline how the French economy has been crippled by the unprecedented efforts to tackle the pandemic.

President Emmanuel Macron last week declared France to be “at war” with the virus, which has infected more than 20,000 people and killed 860 in the country. In response, France shut schools, restaurants, and non-essential shops, while severely restricting people’s movement.

Paris has announced a €45bn aid package to help businesses and employees hit by the virus and France’s finance minister Bruno Le Maire has warned of a looming recession and said he was willing to nationalise large companies to protect them from bankruptcy.

While economists have been slashing their eurozone growth forecasts to deeply negative levels, there has still been very little data to show how hard the coronavirus crisis has hit the economy. So Tuesday’s PMI data are likely to be studied even more closely than usual.

The previous record monthly fall in the French PMI was a 5.5 point drop in December 2018 at the height of the “gilets jaunes” protests that brought parts of the country to a halt.

Arab gulf states ramp up enforcement measures as cases rise

Simeon Kerr reports from Dubai

The Arab Gulf states are ramping up enforcement of curfews, quarantine and stay at home edicts as coronavirus cases rise to more than 1,900.

Kuwait on Sunday evening arrested nine expatriates in a suburb of the capital for breaking a daily nationwide curfew between 5pm and 4am, referring them for deportation.

The United Arab Emirates warned that violations of orders to stay at home would prompt legal action, including fines and prison terms. The government has asked people only to leave their residences to go to work or to collect food and medicine.

Dubai Police arrested a European man for posting a video of himself at the beach in contravention of the authorities’ instructions and Oman’s police force on Monday warned people not to gather in public spaces, including beaches, dunes and mountains. The sultanate reported 18 new infections among nationals, bringing its tally to 84.

In Qatar, where the number of cases has surpassed 500, two people were arrested for breaking home quarantine measures, while in Bahrain, legal action will be taken against groups of five gathering in public spaces, including fines or jail terms of at least three months.

German economy minister dismisses eurozone ‘coronabonds’ idea

Guy Chazan in Berlin reports:

Peter Altmaier, the German economy minister, has rejected the idea of eurozone “coronabonds” to raise money to help fight the economic fallout of the pandemic.

“I urge caution when supposedly new, ingenious concepts are presented which often enough are just long discarded ideas that have come back from the dead,” he told Handelsblatt.

He said the discussion about eurobonds was a “phantom debate”.

Some EU leaders have floated the idea of so-called coronabonds which could be issued by an existing European institution, such as the European Stability Mechanism, to help deal with the economic consequences of the crisis. But Germany is one of a number of eurozone countries that remain sceptical of such an idea, and anything that smacks of pooling risk.

Mr Altmaier said that recent action by the ECB and the various emergency measures adopted by European governments had sent “a strong signal for the stability of the euro”.

Asked what he thought of Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez’s proposal for a new Marshall Plan for Europe, he said that although European solidarity was important, the key task was to “strengthen the competitiveness of EU economies”. “Innovation is more important than subsidies,” he said.

Norwegian Air Shuttle completes first stage of government rescue

Richard Milne reports

Norwegian Air Shuttle has fulfilled the first part of its three-stage government rescue package as the embattled low-cost airline tries to stave off collapse.

Norwegian should receive the first tranche of NKr300m ($27m) in new financing after finding two Nordic banks to guarantee 10 per cent of the scheme with Norway’s government backing the other 90 per cent.

Norwegian, which entered the coronavirus crisis with more debt relative to its profitability than any other listed airline, admitted that the other two parts of the rescue – worth a collective NKr2.7bn – were “crucial” to its survival.

“The current state of the capital markets in combination with the challenging times for the airline industry limit the options available,” it added.

It said it was in discussions with the government over the precise criteria for the remaining money. Norway’s centre-right government said on Thursday that Norwegian would get NK1.2bn if it reduced interest rates and repayments from its existing creditors, and another NKr1.5bn if it raised additional equity.

Norwegian has said that the NKr3bn would help it until June but that it could require more help after that. The airline has grounded nearly all its aircraft and temporarily laid off 90 per cent of its staff due to the collapse in demand from the coronavirus.

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Markets in rally mode as tumult in equities persists

Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong, Leo Lewis in Tokyo and Adam Samson in London write:

Global equities markets have swung higher as the turbulence that has taken hold over the past few weeks has shown little sign of abating.

European bourses jumped at the opening bell, with the continent’s Stoxx 600 rallying 3.6 per cent. London’s FTSE 100 rose 2.7 per cent, while Frankfurt’s DAX advanced 6 per cent.

The more upbeat sentiment rippled from Asia where equities markest posted significant gains as traders assessed the US Federal Reserve’s pledge to buy an unlimited amount of bonds in its bid to prop up the world’s biggest economy.

However, investors were sceptical that the Federal Reserve’s pledge to buy an infinite quantity of Treasuries would lead to a sustained rebound for battered global markets, pointing to few signs the Covid-19 outbreak is slowing and a $2tn US fiscal package still stalled in Congress.

“This is the Fed’s ‘whatever it takes’ moment,” wrote analysts at Invesco, referring to then-European Central Bank governor Mario Draghi’s 2012 pledge to save the euro. That was, they noted, “one of the most aggressive monetary easing programmes in the history of central banking”.

US stock futures markets pointed to a 4.3 per cent rise for the S&P 500 benchmark later in the day. Overnight on Wall Street the S&P 500 ended another volatile session with a 2.9 per cent loss while the Europe Stoxx 600 fell 4.3 per cent.

Signs of crowding on London transport despite lockdown

There has been evidence of overcrowding on London’s transport network this morning, despite the government’s efforts to shut down the country to protect against the spread of the pandemic.

Prime minister Boris Johnson said that only people who could not work from home should continue to travel to their workplace. Key workers such as health and care staff are exempted, so too are people working in construction and manufacturing.

Nicola Smith, who identifies as a health worker, has tweeted a picture of a crowded Central line tube train during Tuesday’s rush hour.

https://twitter.com/nsmith694/status/1242343836262846470?s=20

Transport for London is running a sharply reduced service, but union leaders have warned that it is impossible to practice social distancing on board the trains given how many people are still commuting into the city.

Signs the pandemic is weighing on global hiring

Valentina Romei in London reports:

The coronavirus outbreak is already hitting jobs across all major economies, according to new figures from recruitment site Indeed.

In the UK, job postings in travel and accommodation dropped by 22 per cent between January 31 and March 18 compared with a year earlier, the data showed. Over the same period, there were 12 per cent fewer positions in the food and beverage sector, while the retail sector saw 4 per cent fewer job adverts.

Still, a sharp increase in postings was registered for warehouse-based workers – which the company said reflected many supermarkets gearing up to provide home deliveries for an increasing number of customers. Overall UK job postings were down 4.5 per cent.

Italy – the first western country to be affected by the outbreak – was the worst-performing market across the 11 tracked by Indeed, with a 12 per cent fall in job postings over the same period, but France and Germany also registered sharp contractions.

UK companies hold off trying to calculate virus impact

The UK’s listed companies announce earnings and regulatory disclosures at 7am London time every morning, but things seem a little quieter than normal today.

While several retailers including Games Workshop and Mulberry have put out announcements detailing store closures, there are few signs of companies trying to quantify their lost earnings.

The UK’s financial regulator this weekend asked listed companies to delay publication of their preliminary results for “at least two weeks”, to give them more time to accurately assess the impact on their businesses, and reduce pressure on staff.

Writing in the Lombard column, the FT’s Cat Rutter Pooley said the move was sensible:

By observing the moratorium, even those that do not need it will give their weaker peers some precious breathing space to assess their balance sheets and government support programmes. That could prevent unwelcome surprises later and unnecessary collapses.

European stock futures jump after sell-off

Equities markets across Europe were set to rise sharply on Tuesday, reversing direction from significant falls in the previous session.

Stoxx 600 futures zipped 4.8 per cent higher around 30 minutes before the opening bell in major European markets. German Dax futures rose 5.4 per cent, with UK FTSE 100 futures up 4.5 per cent.

Markets came under pressure on Monday in yet another volatile trading session. The Stoxx 600 shed 4.3 per cent, with Wall Street’s S&P 500 down 2.9 per cent.

A series of key surveys of business executives covering Europe’s biggest economies is due later this morning. The figures are expected to be bleak, but provide economists and investors with a reading on just how bad the situation has become.

These purchasing managers’ indices are released well before official economic data and are among the earliest gauges to provide insight into activity levels.

The FT economics team will be covering them on this live coverage page. France, the eurozone’s second biggest economy, kicks things off at 8.15am London time, followed by Germany 15 minutes later. UK data are due at 9.30am.

Europe: what you might have missed

The Chinese government will begin relaxing restrictions on travel to and from Hubei province, the centre of the global coronavirus pandemic, on Wednesday.

South Korea has expanded financial support for the country’s struggling companies and volatile markets to Won100tn ($79.6bn) as the global pandemic threatens growth in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Britain’s mobile phone networks will send a text message to all of the country’s mobile phone users on Tuesday morning on behalf of the government urging people to stay home.

Any person who fails to comply with coronavirus quarantine procedures when entering China can be tried as a criminal, the country’s top legal bodies said on Tuesday.

New York City, which has overtaken Seattle as the biggest coronavirus hotspot in the US, has seen 28 per cent of its tests coming back positive, suggesting the virus has been circulating in America’s largest city for weeks.

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Chinese government to ease travel restrictions on Hubei province

Tom Mitchell in Singapore and and Christian Shepherd Beijing report:

The Chinese government will begin relaxing restrictions on travel to and from Hubei province, the centre of the global coronavirus pandemic, on Wednesday, in a major milestone in the country’s battle against the disease.

The Hubei Health Commission announced on Tuesday that the liberalisation will initially apply to all areas of the province except for Wuhan, the provincial capital, where the travel ban will stay in place until April 8.

The announcement comes two weeks after President Xi Jinping visited Wuhan, in a signal that the Chinese government felt it had reached a turning point in the “people’s war” against the coronavirus.

Asia stocks rally following Fed’s bond pledge

By Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong and Leo Lewis in Tokyo

Asia-Pacific stocks rallied after the US central bank vowed to buy whatever amount of government bonds necessary to shield the economy from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, investors were sceptical that the Federal Reserve’s pledge to buy an infinite quantity of treasuries would lead to a sustained rebound for battered global markets, pointing to few signs the Covid-19 outbreak is slowing and a $2tn US fiscal package still stalled in Congress.

In Asian trading on Tuesday Japan’s benchmark Topix and Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 climbed 2.1 per cent 4.1 per cent, respectively. South Korea’s Kospi gained 6.6 per cent while China’s CSI 300 and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng added 1.4 per cent and 3.7 per cent, respectively. US stock futures markets pointed to a 3.8 per cent rise for the S&P 500 benchmark later in the day.

Overnight on Wall Street the S&P 500 ended another volatile session with a 2.9 per cent loss. The US dollar, which has surged amid the coronavirus crisis, weakened in Asia trading following the Fed’s announcement.

Arrivals in China face criminal charges if they fail to comply with quarantine

Christian Shepherd reports from Beijing

Any person who fails to comply with coronavirus quarantine procedures when entering China can be tried as a criminal, the country’s top legal bodies said on Tuesday, making clear that the measure also applied to foreigners.

Nationality should have no bearing on legal decisions about who should be held accountable for jeopardising national health quarantine measures at the border, China’s supreme people’s court and procuratorate said in a statement.

The announcement comes as China focuses its efforts to fight the coronavirus on its borders, as transmission within the country has dwindled to near zero.

As part of efforts to guard against a second wave of the outbreak caused by new infections imported into China, the capital city of Beijing has rerouted airlines to neighbouring hubs for screenings and imposed mandatory 14-day quarantines in centralised hotels for all new arrivals.

Hong Kong developer warns tourism ‘at a standstill’

Primrose Riordan reports from Hong Kong

A property company founded by Hong Kong’s wealthiest tycoon has warned that its rental returns and the market value of its properties would be squeezed this year due to the coronavirus and the ongoing political unrest in the city.

Henderson Land, which was previously headed by Lee Shau-kee, is now run by his two sons, Peter and Martin Lee.

“The tourism, hotel and aviation industries have almost come to a standstill,” Henderson Land said in its annual results.

Forbes said in February that the senior Mr Lee had edged out Li Ka-shing as the richest man in the city, with an estimated fortune of $30.4bn.

Henderson Land’s net profit fell 26 per cent in 2019 to HK$14.6bn (US$1.9bn) compared with the year before.

The company attributed the drop to US-China trade tensions and the political crisis that gripped Hong Kong in the latter half of 2019.

Brazil coronavirus cases near 2,000

Andres Schipani in São Paulo

Brazil’s confirmed cases of coronavirus grew on Monday to 1,891 with 34 fatalities.

It has the highest number of cases in Latin America and experts have said the region’s largest country appears on track to have an Italy-like curve of infection.

The steady rise of those infected with Covid-19 — a week ago there were only 234 — comes as President Jair Bolsonaro is being heavily criticised over a lack of decisive action in the face of the pandemic.

He stepped up his verbal attacks on state governors saying “people will know that they have been deceived” by them after they ordered non-essential businesses to shut their doors to stem the outbreak.

But according to a Datafolha poll released on Monday, 54 per cent of respondents rated the governors’ response to the pandemic as “great” or “good” against just 34 per cent for Mr Bolsonaro, who early on Monday, issued a decree allowing employers to suspend employees for up to four months with no pay, but not fire them, only to backpedal hours later amid an outrage.

Later in the day, he agreed to release R$85bn (US$16bn) for Brazilian states to fight the outbreak.

South Korea boosts support for companies and markets

Song Jung-a reports from Seoul

South Korea has expanded financial support for the country’s struggling companies and volatile markets to Won100tn ($79.6bn) as the global pandemic threatens growth in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

The expanded stimulus package, which builds on a Won50tn financial support plan unveiled last week, is a “special pre-emptive step to protect our companies and people’s jobs”, President Moon Jae-in said in an emergency economic meeting on Tuesday.

The package includes an extra Won29.1tn financial support for troubled small and mid-sized companies, a Won20tn bond market stabilisation fund and a Won10.7tn stock market stabilisation fund. Financial support will also be provided to big companies suffering from liquidity shortages.

Mr Moon expressed concern that South Korea’s export-driven economy will be hit hard by slowing global demand. “The global economy is in trouble. It is hard to predict when it will be over,” he said. “Our companies, the backbone of our economy, are also in big trouble.”

He said urgent steps were needed to cushion the blow to local companies as they suffer from liquidity shortages amid deteriorating earnings and lower credit ratings due to disruptions to global supply chains and slowing exports.

UK to send text messages to urge people to stay home

Nic Fildes reports from London

Britain’s mobile phone networks will send a text message to all of the country’s mobile phone users on Tuesday morning on behalf of the government urging people to stay home.

The move is unprecedented for the British telecoms industry but follows the example of other countries that have sent regular warnings to people of restrictions to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The government has held talks with the technology and telecoms industry about alert systems using smartphones and mobile networks.

Such systems are often deployed in crisis situations such as earthquakes.

Australia’s Xinja Bank secures $256m investment

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

Emirates’ World Investments said on Tuesday it would invest up to A$433m (US$256m) over the next two years in Xinja Bank, an Australian start-up digital bank.

The investment, one of the largest made in an Australian start-up, was agreed despite the ongoing coronavirus crisis, which has led to a funding squeeze for many businesses.

Emirates’ World Investments, an investment group based in Dubai, said it would invest A$160m immediately and make the remaining A$273m available in several tranches.

Eric Wilson, Xinja founder and chief executive, said the large scale investment was a great outcome for the company, which has expanded aggressively since launching in Australia in January and now has attracted 29,000 customers.

Xinja has attracted deposits worth A$400m in less than eight weeks by offering attractive interest rate on savings of 2.25 per cent.

It has temporarily stopped taking new customers for its savings account following the Reserve Bank of Australia’s move to slash rates to a record low of 0.25 per cent.

Mr Wilson said Xinja is maintaining its 2.25 per cent deposit rate for existing customers.

Myanmar reports first cases of coronavirus

John Reed reports from Bangkok

Myanmar has reported its first two coronavirus cases, after weeks of claiming that it was free of the disease.

Myanmar’s health ministry said late on Monday that a 36-year-old Myanmar man returning from the US and a 26-year-old Myanmar man returning from the UK had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“We will investigate all the people who were in close contact with these two men,” the statement, quoted by AFP, said.

Myanmar, with a population of 54m, is one of Asia’s poorest countries, and health officials said that its recent claim to be coronavirus-free was due to a lack of testing.

Zaw Htay, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government spokesman, claimed earlier this month that the diets and lifestyles of people in Myanmar, including their use of cash money rather than credit cards, were preventing the spread of the disease.

Washington state tells residents to stay at home

Hannah Murphy reports from San Francisco

Washington has become the latest in a string of US states to issue a stay-at-home order to residents to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

Governor Jay Inslee said that all Washingtonians would be required to stay at home for at least two weeks unless they need to pursue “essential activities”.

All businesses except “essential businesses” are to be closed in the state, which became the epicentre of the West Coast outbreak following the discovery of multiple cases at a nursing home just outside of Seattle.

Washington is now the 16th state under lockdown, after New Mexico, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia and Wisconsin all made similar announcements on Monday.

New Zealand reports 43 new coronavirus cases

New Zealand said it is examining four suspected cases of “community transmission” as the country reported 43 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday morning.

Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general of health, said the total number of cases in the country had risen to 155. He said New Zealand will now include cases identified through clinical diagnosis in its tally alongside those identified through positive test results.

Overseas travel remained the “main driver” of new cases in New Zealand, but four of the cases reported on Tuesday did not appear to be linked to anyone with a travel history or other confirmed cases. Health authorities are using contact tracing to discover possible connections to other cases.

New Zealand has closed its borders to foreign visitors.

Jacinda Ardern, the country’s prime minister, announced on Monday that New Zealand would enter “Covid-19 alert level 4 eliminate” from midnight on Wednesday, which involves closing non-essential businesses and instructs people to stay at home to stem the spread of the virus.

Dr Bloomfield said it was best to enter this stage “sooner rather than later” to break the chain of community transmission.

Six people are being treated in hospital for Covid-19 and all are in a stable condition, Dr Bloomfield said.

South Korean new virus cases rise again despite tougher controls

By Edward White

The pace of new infections in South Korea has picked up again as the country tightens controls on overseas arrivals and large church groups.

Seventy-six new cases were reported on Tuesday, up from 64 cases a day earlier. The total caseload now stands at 9,037 with 120 deaths.

New infections have been mostly on a downward trend this month but there have been several flare-ups linked to churches, nursing homes and a call-centre, as well as arrivals from Europe and the US.

Seoul has in recent days started implementing mandatory testing on all new arrivals from Europe and some health experts have called for the measure to be expanded to people landing in the country from the US.

Still, the number of patients recovering continues to outpace new infections with 341 additional recoveries recorded on Tuesday, taking the tally to 3,507, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ecuador delays bond interest payments

Gideon Long reports from Bogotá

Ecuador’s finance minister said the country will make a $325m eurobond amortisation payment on Tuesday as planned, but will delay the payment of around $200m in interest on other bonds due this week, taking advantage of a 30-day grace period to give itself more time.

In a sign of how cash-strapped the country is in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak and a sharp drop in oil prices, Richard Martínez said his government would try to reschedule debt repayments with all its creditors.

“We’re going to open a dialogue with our commercial, bilateral and multilateral creditors to come up with a good agreement for the Republic that will allow us to reduce the pressure over the course of the year while at the same time maintaining access to sources of financing,” he told an online news conference on Monday night.

He said the decision to repay the $325m should ensure Ecuador receives around $2bn in financing in the coming weeks, including a $500m disbursement from the IMF in late April.

In addition, he said Ecuador had secured more than $100m in help from the World Bank ($26m), the Inter-American Development Bank ($25m) and the Latin American development bank CAF ($51m) specifically to deal with Covid-19.

The delayed interest payments are on bonds due in 2022, 2025 and 2030.

Ecuador has the second-highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Latin America, behind Brazil, and the highest per capita. Local authorities say 981 people have tested positive and 18 have died.

It is the only country in South America that uses the dollar as its currency, limiting its scope to address the sharp drop in prices for oil, which accounts for more than half of the country’s export revenue. Furthermore, it is struggling to meet the terms of a $4.2bn loan agreed with the IMF last year.

The spread between Ecuadorian bonds and US Treasuries has soared in recent weeks reaching the kind of levels typically associated with default. On Sunday night, Congress urged the government to delay its debt repayments.

News you might have missed

Johnson to Britons: ‘You must stay home’ Boris Johnson brought the shutters down on Britain on Monday night, as he announced the closure of all “non-essential shops”, told people to stay at home and warned that the police would enforce tough new measures to stop the spread of coronavirus.

France toughens its lockdown France has again tightened the rules governing the country’s lockdown by raising the fines for people who go out without a legal reason, limiting outdoor exercise even further and closing all open-air markets.

South Africa orders 21-day lockdown South African president Cyril Ramaphosa ordered a 21-day nationwide lockdown for Africa’s most industrialised country, in the most drastic measures on the continent so far to tackle the spread of the virus.

Senate fails to advance stimulus bill for second time Democrats have for the second day in a row stopped a nearly $2tn economic stimulus package from advancing in the Senate, as lawmakers from both parties continue to disagree over how to prop up a US economy battered by the spread of coronavirus.

IMF concedes coronavirus will push world economy into recession The IMF has belatedly recognised that the coronavirus crisis will plunge the world economy into recession. In a statement after a call with G20 finance ministers, Kristalina Georgieva, who heads the fund, said the outlook was now “negative”.

China reports 1 new coronavirus case in Wuhan

Chinese health authorities reported a new case of coronavirus in Wuhan, the city where the outbreak began, after four days of no new local infections in the mainland.

There were 78 new cases in the mainland to the end of Monday, up from 39 a day earlier. Of those infections, 74 were imported by people returning from overseas. The new cases took the total to 81,171.

There were seven new deaths, to bring the total fatalities to 3,277.

The number of coronavirus patients discharged from hospital rose to 73,159.

Asia-Pacific stocks climb despite US falls

Asia-Pacific stocks rose on Tuesday even after a pledge for unprecedented buying of government bonds by the US Federal Reserve failed to steady Wall Street as investors awaited the passage of an economic stimulus package.

Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 was 2.3 per cent higher while the Topix in Japan was up 2.8 per cent. In South Korea, the Kospi gained 2.3 per cent.

US stock futures also rose, with the benchmark S&P 500 set to gain 1.3 per cent when markets reopen.

The S&P 500 ended Monday 2.9 per cent lower as investors awaited a fiscal stimulus package to support the country’s economy during the outbreak. That fall came despite the Fed unleashing its most forceful efforts to date, pledging to buy government bonds in unlimited amounts and to provide a backstop to the US corporate debt market.

Democrats on Monday stopped a $2tn economic stimulus package from advancing in the Senate for a second time, insisting it include stricter limits on how big businesses use the rescue funds.

More than 42% of the US now under ‘stay at home’ orders

Peter Wells reports from New York

New Mexico has become the latest state to issue a stay at home order, bringing the proportion of the US population under lockdown now and in coming days to more than 40 per cent.

The order from the south-western state, which comes into effect at 8am on March 24, means the number of US states ordering residents to stay at their residences more than doubled on Monday to 15. Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia and Wisconsin made such announcements earlier in the day.

The 15 states where those orders are effective or about to come into effect cover just over 42 per cent of the population in the 50 states and District of Columbia.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the US has soared to more than 41,000 as of Monday, 579 of whom have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. That is more cases than any country after China and Italy, and the number of people who test positive is expected to continue to rise rapidly as the US ramps up the ability to test people with symptoms.

New York is the hardest-hit state, with the number of confirmed cases rising by 5,707 in the past 24 hours, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday, bringing the total number of cases to 20,875.

Some individual cities and counties have issued stay at home orders, even though the states have not. As such, the proportion of the population affected by those restrictions probably exceeds 42 per cent.

Texas, the US’s second most-populous state, does not have a stay at home order in place, but local media reported the capital, Austin, was expected to take this route tomorrow, following in the footsteps of Dallas and Waco.

New York City area sees 28% of all tests coming back positive

Peter Spiegel reports from New York

New York City, which has overtaken Seattle as the biggest coronavirus hotspot in the US, has seen 28 per cent of its tests coming back positive, suggesting the virus has been circulating in America’s largest city for weeks.

Deborah Birx, the co-ordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, said the 28 per cent rate for the New York City area far outstrips the national average of less than 8 per cent.

“So to all of my friends and colleagues in New York, this is the group that needs to absolutely social distance and self-isolate at this time,” said Dr Birx. “Clearly the virus had been circulating there for a number of weeks to have this level of penetrance into the general community.”

Earlier in the day, Andrew Cuomo, the New York governor, said the state had recorded 5,707 new cases in the past 24 hours, with 4,300 of them in either New York City or suburban Westchester County. New York City now has 20,875 cases, more than all but five countries.

Coronavirus latest: Covid-19 cases in Spain rise 25% in 24 hours as outbreak worsens


Campaign to ‘clap for carers’ makes the rounds on UK social media

A message calling on those living in the UK to applaud health professionals and other carers has been making the rounds on social media.

The message below, which was shared on my North West London neighbourhood WhatsApp group and by a local Twitter account (see below), encourages Britons to show doctors, nurses, and others that they are “grateful”.

It has called on people to applaud from their “front doors, garden, balcony, windows and living room” on March 26 at 8pm. Similar measures have taken hold in other countries including Spain and France.

https://twitter.com/LifeInKilburn/status/1241349922974248961

Coronavirus cases in Saudi Arabia rise by over 10 per cent

Ahmed Al Omran in Riyadh

Saudi Arabia announced 48 new cases of coronavirus on Saturday, bringing the total number of cases in the kingdom to 392.

A health ministry spokesman said Saturday that authorities have carried out around 22,000 tests so far that came back negative. Of the diagnosed cases, 16 people have fully recovered, he said.

The country has implemented strict measures to combat the coronavirus outbreak, including suspending international and domestic air travel, trains, buses and taxis; closing malls and mosques, and halting religious pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina.

Despite taking these steps, health officials say many cases reported in recent days are related to mixing with infected people at weddings, funerals and family gatherings. That has led to calls on social media for the imposition of a curfew if people continue to ignore official instructions.

OECD secretary-general says “war” on Covid-19 requires joint action

Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, has said that a highly ambitious global response is needed to overcome the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms Gurría described the outbreak as “the third and greatest economic, financial and social shock of the 21st Century,” after the September 11th attacks and the 2008 financial crisis.

The approach which she outlined would require co-operation at all levels, including national governments working together on research into vaccines and treatments, and on creating “an immediate buffer” to mitigate the economic damage.

Central banks also have a role to play, she said, ensuring the functioning of financial markets and services.

Finally, Ms Gurría highlighted the importance of restoring confidence. It suggested that measures such as removing trade restrictions would ease tensions which pre-dated Covid-19.

Ms Gurría said that the scope of the response went beyond previous actions.

“We need a level of ambition similar to that of the Marshall plan…and a vision akin to that of the New Deal, but now at the global level.”

Hungary’s Viktor Orban seeks new emergency powers

Valerie Hopkins in Budapest reports

Hungary’s government will seek to extend a state of emergency indefinitely and impose a raft of measures to combat coronavirus including jail time for people believed to have spread false information.

Prime minister Viktor Orban, who is currently serving his fourth term, asked the parliament to grant him the right to issue decrees to contain the pandemic, in draft legislation published late Friday.

The bill, which will be voted on next week, proposes a penalty of up to five years in prison for anyone deemed to be spreading fake news about the pandemic. One individual has already been detained for allegedly spreading false reports that there would be a full lockdown in the capital Budapest.

Mr Orban’s conservative Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority in parliament but the bill requires support from opposition groups in order to get the required 80 per cent support.

The draft legislation has raised concerns in Hungary, which is currently facing heightened EU scrutiny over the rule of law. A report published last week by V-Dem, an academic group based in Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, downgraded Hungary’s categorization this year to “electoral authoritarian regime,” the first inside the European Union.

Hungary, like many of its central European neighbours, closed most of its borders early in the week. The country currently has 103 registered cases of the coronavirus and four deaths.

Germany plans blow-out budget to save its economy

Guy Chazan in Berlin reports

Germany is set to abandon six years of fiscal restraint with a blow-out budget designed to save its economy from the brutal effects of the coronavirus pandemic and protect thousands of businesses from imminent ruin.

Angela Merkel’s cabinet is meeting on Monday to approve new borrowing of €356bn — equivalent to nearly 10 per cent of Germany’s gross domestic product — marking a new era in fiscal policy and a radical departure from Berlin’s long-held aversion to debt.

Ministers will consider plans for a €156bn supplementary budget for 2020, including a €50bn hardship fund to help small businesses and freelancers whose revenues are collapsing as the virus spreads.

They will also approve a €100bn economic stabilisation fund that will be used to take stakes in companies crippled by the fallout from the pandemic, according to a person familiar with the plans, paving the way for a radical state intervention in the workings of the market economy.

The blueprint also envisages a €100bn loan from the new stabilisation fund to the KfW, Germany’s state development bank, which is providing unlimited loans to firms facing a cash crunch under a programme announced by the finance minister Olaf Scholz earlier this month.

The stabilisation fund will also be equipped with €400bn in guarantees to underwrite the debts of companies affected by the turmoil.

The fund is a reactivation of Soffin, a government-backed vehicle set up in 2009 to bail out troubled banks. It will not only underwrite debts but also be able to inject fresh capital into stricken companies, effectively paving the way for a wave of partial state takeovers.

Just as the state helped the banks after the financial crisis, “we are now prepared to provide equity for the real economy”, Mr Scholz told German radio on Friday. The state had to help companies “that employ an incredible number of men and women and which all of a sudden have no business”.

Ukraine minister calls for ‘total full quarantine’

Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv

Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s interior affairs minister, called for a nationwide “total full quarantine”, warning that strict lockdowns and possibly martial law would soon be declared to prevent an uncontrolled spike in the coronavirus which threatens to overwhelm the country’s dilapidated healthcare system.

“Only critically necessary business entities should work in the country, regardless of the form of ownership!” he said in a Facebook post on Saturday.

He added:

Critical industrial enterprises and infrastructure enterprises [will continue to operate] – the rest should be closed, and people should be quarantined at home … we will count losses and think about compensations later, when we survive!

Kyiv, the country’s capital city, will on Sunday prohibit use of public transportation for average residents, with the exception of workers in the healthcare system, pharmacies and grocery stores.

Mr Avakov’s comments came hours after the country’s government declared a state of emergency in Kyiv, and several provinces where officials tried to prevent full-blown outbreaks of Covid-19.

Ukraine’s health ministry on Saturday revealed 41 confirmed infections of the virus, nearly double the 26 detected as of the prior day. But limited testing has fuelled fears that infection rates are much higher and that the country’s stockpile of nearly 1,000 ventilators for infectious diseases are not enough for a population of 44m, including 9m pensioners.

The number of tests we have done, and the number of people identified as positive are so drastically fewer then all of the countries around us that it’s virtually impossible to be accurate

Dr Ulana Suprun, former health minister, told the Financial Times.

Belgian cases rise by over 500 in 24 hours

Jim Brunsden from Brussels

The total number of cases of coronavirus in Belgium rose by over 500 in 24 hours, a 25 per cent increase which brought the total number of confirmed cases up to 2,815. The government also reported deaths had risen to 67, an increase of 30 in the same time period.

A spokesman for the Belgian government’s crisis centre advised people to establish a clear daily routine to avoid mental health problems during confinement.

The authorities have placed a team of Red Cross volunteers on call to respond to those in distress because of the lockdown, which began on Wednesday. Social gatherings are banned, teleworking is compulsory for much of the population, and all non-essential shops are shut.

The crisis centre, in its daily press conference, urged people to avoid spending lots of time on social media, instead recommending activities such as cooking, DIY and reading.

A spokesperson for the centre also recommended that Belgians under lockdown reach out to those around them. “Do not remain alone with your emotions, talk about them.”

Spanish cases jump by 25 per cent in 24 hours

Daniel Dombey in Madrid

The number of documented Spanish cases of coronavirus has increased by almost 5,000 in 24 hours and more than 300 people have died from the virus in that time, according to figures released on Saturday.

The Spanish government said there were now 24,926 cases, with 1,612 people in intensive care and 1,326 deaths.

Compared with Friday’s figures, this represents a 25 per cent increase on the number of cases, a 40 per cent surge in people in intensive care and a 32 per cent increase in the death toll. Overall, 2,125 people have recovered.

Spain’s hospitals and intensive care units are struggling to cope, despite some Madrid hotels being temporarily converted and of the Fair of Madrid, the capital’s main exhibition space.

Madrid remains the worst affected part of the country, with 8,921 cases, 767 people in intensive care and 804 deaths.

Google revamps coronavirus search results after Trump comments

Google launched a dedicated website with information about the coronavirus alongside changes to its search results for the virus a week after President Donald Trump touted the company’s efforts to inform people about the disease.

The company has redesigned its search results pages for the virus including a sidebar with links to official health advice. “This new format organises the search results page to help people easily navigate information and resources”, wrote Google’s Emily Moxley in an online announcement.

The changes come a week after President Trump told reporters that 1,700 Google engineers were working on an online tool to help people find out if they should be tested for Covid-19. Google’s new website directs users to local health resources in each US state, with plans to expand to other jurisdictions, but does not offer the personalised testing advice Mr Trump described. The site also includes resources for online education as well as links to Youtube videos on working from home and cooking with non-perishable food items.

Google’s fellow Alphabet Inc subsidiary Verily has said it is working with California health officials to help deliver coronavirus testing, with the programme now open in some counties in the San Francisco Bay area.

Hong Kong re-imposes partial lockdown to fight ‘second wave’ of outbreak

Nicolle Liu reports from Hong Kong:

Hong Kong has resumed a partial lockdown as the number of confirmed cases imported from abroad has increased sharply, highlighting the ‘second wave’ of the outbreak that is sweeping across Asia.

Carrie Lam, the territory’s chief executive, announced from Monday onwards, public recreational facilitates such as sport grounds and museums will be shut again and civil servants work-from-home arrangement will recommence. Private companies would be encouraged to follow, Ms Lam said.

Kevin Yeung, the Secretary for Education, said schools will remain closed until further notice and public exams scheduled to start next week are postponed for a month and oral assessment will be cancelled.

“The epidemic from imported cases, is more severe and harder to deal with compared to any time in the past two months, and have a much higher chance to lead to a community outbreak,” said Ms Lam

The total of confirmed and probable cases in Hong Kong have reached 294, with most of the recent infections occurring in those coming from abroad or their close contacts.

Coronavirus testing will be expanded to asymptomatic elderly individuals or those who are living with them returning from high risk areas from aboard, said Sophia Chan, the Secretary for Food and Health.

Ms Lam added that the government is ramping up law enforcement towards those who violate compulsory quarantine orders imposed to all arrivals from all countries and jurisdictions, except Taiwan and Macau, to Hong Kong. Authorities have found seven cases allegedly breaching the rules and they will be prosecuted accordingly, she said.

WHO launches WhatsApp service to fight Covid-19 fake news

The World Health Organization announced that it is launching a messenger service via WhatsApp to directly provide the public with information about Covid-19.

The service offers up-to-date statistics, details on symptoms, advice on how to guard against the virus and a list of common rumours and misinformation.

False news and information about Covid-19 have been rife. While social media platforms have been one vector, campaigns spreading fake narratives and inaccurate advice have also used encrypted messenger apps and traditional SMS texting.

While Facebook and Twitter have said that there is no evidence of state-backed campaigns on their open platforms, the provenance of much misinformation remains unclear.

World Health Organization announces WhatsApp messenger service

The World Health Organization announced that it is launching a messenger service via WhatsApp to directly provide the public with information about Covid-19.

The service offers up-to-date statistics, details on symptoms, advice on how to guard against the virus and a list of common rumours and misinformation.

False news and information about Covid-19 have been rife. While social media platforms have been one vector, campaigns spreading fake narratives and inaccurate advice have also used encrypted messenger apps and traditional SMS texting.

While Facebook and Twitter have said that there is no evidence of state-backed campaigns on their open platforms, the provenance of these messages remains extremely difficult to discover.

Europe — what you might have missed

• The United Arab Emirates has been taking steps to seal off the Gulf’s commercial centre, barring the entry of tourists and the return of residents from outside the country.

• Millions of Iranians have travelled over the past four days as the Islamic republic began new year celebrations on Friday despite warnings by health officials to stay home and self-quarantine to curtail the spread of coronavirus.

• Migrant workers are streaming out of Mumbai, returning to their home villages across India, as the state of Maharashtra shuts down most workplaces until at least March 31 to try to stop the worsening outbreak.

Bangkok’s regional government on Saturday ordered the closure of shopping malls, non-food markets, barber shops, swimming pools and most other public venues from Sunday in a bid to contain the spread of the virus.

United Airlines plans to cut international flight capacity for April by 95 per cent, the company said on Friday.

Covid-19 case count jumps to more than 277,000

Steve Bernard, data visualisation journalist, reports:

Global health authorities reported more than 30,000 new Covid-19 cases on Friday, the largest increase to date, in a sign the pandemic is continuing to escalate.

There were 30,655 new infections reported, bringing the global tally to 277,245, according to Financial Times calculations.

The death toll jumped by 1,356 to greater than 11,000. Italy accounted for almost half of the new fatalities.

The rate of recoveries has continued to grow this past week, with 3,411 patients reporting being free of the virus. The total of recovered cases now stands at 91,989.

All the latest data is available on the FT coronavirus tracker.

UK manufacturer ramps up ventilator output

Smiths Group announced plans to boost production of ventilators as part of the UK’s efforts to meet demand for the medical device, which is crucial for treating many critically-ill coronavirus patients.

The FTSE 100 engineering company said it will boost output at its facility in Luton. Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week appealed to British industrial firms to build tens of thousands of ventilators for the NHS. Smiths said it will also contribute technical advice to the national manufacturing effort.

Global demand for ventilators has risen sharply since the coronavirus outbreak began. Countries including Germany and Italy have moved to increase production and some nations have limited exports of the devices, promoting concerns over the global supply.

Andrew Reynolds Smith, CEO of Smiths, said:

During this time of national and global crisis it is our duty to assist in the efforts being made to tackle this devastating pandemic… We are doing everything possible to substantially increase production of our ventilators at our Luton site and worldwide.

Iranian president says armed forces have completed 7 makeshift hospitals and 3,000 beds

Monavar Khalaj in Tehran

Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani said the country’s armed forces had so far set up 7 makeshift hospitals, 3,000 beds and new centres to look after patients who were discharged from hospitals but still need care.

The president added that the number of hospitals could increase to as much as 20 if needed.

Makeshift beds have also been set up in the 1.4m square metre Iran Mall. The shopping complex volunteered earlier this week to set up 3,000 beds to assist the country’s healthcare network.

Experts warn that a second peak of infections could be expected when millions of Iranian travellers return home after the new year holidays in early April.

Iran’s health ministry said that fatalities reached 1,556 on Saturday, rising from 1,433 on Friday. The numbers testing positive increased for the virus increased from 19,644 to 20,610.

Turkish president issues health advice via voicemail

Laura Pitel in Ankara

Mobile phone users across Turkey will receive a voice message from president Recep Tayyip Erdogan urging them to stay indoors and practice good hygiene.

A Turkish official said that the measure was aimed at ensuring that vital public health messages reached older citizens who were less likely to use social media and the internet.

The initiative came as the number of deaths from coronavirus in Turkey more than doubled to nine people, while the number of confirmed cases rose by 87 per cent to 670.

ADIB takes measures to ease burden on customers hit by coronavirus

Simeon Kerr in Dubai

Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank has offered to postpone April payments for its personal finance customers as United Arab Emirates institutions take steps to ease the burden on customers hit by the coronavirus fallout.

ADIB also said on Saturday that it would offer 5 per cent cash back per month on grocery and utility bills.

The measures come after Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank conditionally offered from April 2 to defer loan payments and waive interest for up to six months. The lender said it would defer payments and waive interest charges for three months to anyone placed on unpaid leave because of the outbreak.

The UAE central bank last week launched a 100bn dirham ($27bn) relief package to allow banks to ease the burden on retail and corporate clients, but struggling companies and individuals have complained that some lenders have been reluctant to pass along any benefits.

UK government prepares taxpayer injection for airlines

David Crow in New York and Jim Pickard in London report

The UK government is drawing up plans to buy equity stakes in airlines and other companies hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis after being warned that the economic packages it has announced so far will not be enough to save them.

The plans would see the UK taxpayer inject billions of pounds into companies, including British Airways, in exchange for shares that would eventually be sold back to private investors, according to three people briefed on the proposals.

Two of the people said the government was contemplating the move after being warned by bankers that the support it has already unveiled — including £330bn of loan guarantees — would not be enough to stave off the collapse of companies that had seen their revenues all but evaporate.

To read more on this story click here.

Bundesbank head expresses discomfort over ECB’s €750bn asset splurge

Martin Arnold reports from Frankfurt

The head of Germany’s central bank has said “extraordinary measures” are needed to deal with the economic turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic, while warning they must be unwound once the crisis is over.

Jens Weidmann, president of the Bundesbank, hinted at his discomfort with the vast €750bn of extra asset purchases announced by the European Central Bank after an emergency call with other governing council members on Wednesday night.

“We discussed very extensively, different perspectives were presented and different approaches to solutions,” Mr Weidmann told Die Welt newspaper. “Regardless of differences in individual points, we agree that there is a need for action and that extensive measures are important.”

The Bundesbank boss, along with the heads of the Dutch and Austrian central banks, expressed their dissent on both the size of the ECB’s extra asset purchases and its indication that long-standing limits on the programme could be lifted if needed.

Admitting that a recession was “now inevitable” in Germany, Mr Weidmann praised the “quick and correct” actions of the country’s government to lock down most activity to contain the spread of coronavirus.

“Monetary policy supports, but this time it cannot be at the forefront of defense,” he said, adding that Germany’s many years of running budget surpluses put it in “a good starting position” to deal with the economic impact of the virus.

He said that “if additional funds are needed” by more heavily indebted countries to finance their response to the crisis, “it is up to politicians in Europe to decide on aid in solidarity”. In an apparent reference to the European Stability Mechanism, the region’s €500bn bail-out fund, he added: “Instruments for this were created in the last crisis.”

Mr Weidmann has long opposed the ECB’s bond-buying programme, arguing it infringes on EU laws against monetary financing of governments. The central bank has already bought €2.6tn of bonds to keep borrowing costs low across the bloc and after its latest temporary expansion it is set to buy another €1tn this year.

United Arab Emirates moves to seal its borders

The United Arab Emirates has been taking gradual steps to seal off the Gulf’s commercial centre, barring the entry of tourists and the return of residents from outside the country, Simeon Kerr reports from Dubai.

From Saturday, nationals from other Arab Gulf states will also be blocked from the UAE until a coronavirus screening mechanism is approved.

State media on Saturday reported the UAE’s first coronavirus fatalities, saying that two people had died on Friday. The UAE has 140 confirmed cases of Covid-19.

Millions of Iranians defy health officials to travel for new year

Monavar Khalaj reports from Tehran

Millions of Iranians have travelled over the past four days as the Islamic republic began new year celebrations on Friday despite warnings by health officials to stay home and self-quarantine to curtail the spread of coronavirus.

The acting head of the Iranian Red Crescent Society, Karim Hemmati, said on Saturday that 970,000 vehicles had left 13 provinces between March 17 and 20, amounting to almost 3m people on the move to celebrate Nowruz, the Iranian new year.

He complained that Iranians did not heed an appeal by the country’s health officials not to travel and added that about 2,400 of these people had been found with early symptoms of the virus, such as fever and coughs, at health-check roadblocks, the semi-official Fars news agency reported on Saturday.

Meanwhile, a second package of medical equipment, including masks and sanitisers, arrived from Qatar on Saturday, according to domestic media.

Iran, which is under the tough US sanctions after US President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal agreed between the Islamic republic and world powers, has asked the world for international assistance to secure equipment such as test kits, ventilators, protective clothing against hazardous materials, gloves and masks.

Food and medicine are not subject to the sanctions but imports face obstacles and delays because Iran is cut off from the international financial system.

US politicians urge Twitter to ban Chinese diplomats’ accounts

US political pressure is building on Twitter to ban use of the social media platform by Chinese diplomats, some of whom have used it to spread conspiracy theories blaming the global coronavirus pandemic on the US military, Tom Mitchell reports.

In a letter to Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey released on Saturday, two US politicians, Ben Sasse and Mike Gallagher, said Chinese diplomats were using Twitter, which is blocked in China, to “disseminate propaganda … [that] obscures and confuses users over the origins of Covid-19 and potentially undermines efforts to contain and control the outbreak”.

Chinese diplomats and other government officials use special software to bypass the “great firewall” that censors Twitter and many other foreign social media sites in China.

“Access to social media platforms should be denied to government officials from countries that prohibit their own populations from accessing this content,” Mr Sasse, a Nebraska senator, and Mr Gallagher, a Wisconsin House member, added. Both are Republicans.

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1239685852093169664

Increasingly bitter exchanges between Washington and Beijing about the origins of the disease, which US President Donald Trump publicly refers to as “the Chinese virus”, have become intertwined with the expulsions of dozens of Chinese and US journalists over recent weeks.

On Friday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman asked if the Trump administration’s recent expulsion of 60 Chinese journalists was “an attempt to block access to information on the epidemic in the US”.

He added: “Did the US anticipate that the epidemic would spread at home in a month and fear that the Chinese media would expose the situation … are they trying to hide anything?”

On Saturday, the Chinese foreign ministry’s chief spokesperson, Hua Chunying, took to Twitter to mock the Trump administration’s much-criticised handling of the worsening pandemic within its own borders, as China reported no new cases from internal transmission for the third straight day.

“US AID promised to give some medical supplies to China, but was not ready until March 11,” Ms Hua wrote. “Given the fast spreading of the pandemic around the world, we have thanked the US and suggested to give them to those more needed [sic] asap.”

Bangkok orders closure of most stores and public venues from Sunday

John Reed reports from Bangkok

Bangkok’s regional government on Saturday ordered the closure of shopping malls, non-food markets, barber shops, swimming pools and most other public venues from Sunday in a bid to contain the spread of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Supermarkets and food markets will remain open in the Thai capital, where 8m people live, and restaurants will be allowed to offer only take-away service.

Thailand, with an economy that relies heavily on tourism and hospitality, has been slower than most other countries to order businesses to shut in response to the pandemic.

The kingdom reported 89 new cases of the coronavirus on Saturday, the biggest daily jump yet, bringing the total to 411.

On Friday evening the Bank of Thailand cut the main lending rate to a record low of 0.75 per cent at a special meeting in an effort to mitigate the impact of the outbreak on south-east Asia’s second-biggest economy.

India turns back KLM plane full of stranded citizens

Amy Kazmin reports from New Delhi

A KLM flight carrying 100 Indians rushing home before their country locks down its borders was forced to turn back mid-way, after it being denied permission to land amid confusion by Indian officials in interpreting their own restrictions and travel advisories.

India will not permit any incoming passenger flights to land after midnight tonight, and Indians across the world are racing to get home on the few commercial flights still available before the deadline.

But the Indian government had also previously announced that no travellers coming from hard-hit European countries – even Indian citizens – would be allowed to enter the country after Wednesday.

https://twitter.com/suhasinih/status/1241228370643316743?s=20

Most of the Indian travellers on the KLM plane had flown in from North America and were transiting in Amsterdam, and were due to land in India just ahead of the closure. But the plane was turned back while flying over Russia, after Indian aviation authorities decided that the ban on passengers from Europe would apply to the KLM flight.

Foreign ministry officials had previously assured the airline that the plane would be permitted to land, as the passengers had only transited in Amsterdam.

In videos posted on Twitter, Indian passengers now stranded at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport beg the Indian government for help, and permission to return home.

Many Dutch citizens trying to leave India were awaiting the arrival of the flight, which was set to ferry them back home.

Indian authorities have said they are trying to resolve the issue.

Taiwan to extend stays for foreigners stranded by dearth of flights

Taiwan is allowing all foreigners legally in the country to stay three months longer in response to the cuts in global flights, Kathrin Hille reports from Taipei.

For all foreign citizens who were in Taiwan under a visa waiver programme or a visa or arrival visa that had not yet expired as of March 21, their permit to stay would be extended automatically by up to 180 days, the foreign ministry said on Saturday.

The visa relaxation comes as growing numbers of travellers find themselves stranded in various countries after many governments imposed entry and exit bans and airlines cut most international flights.

Taiwan suspended entry for practically all foreign citizens earlier this week as it is being hit by a second wave of imported infections that more than doubled its confirmed case count to 153 and threatens to derail its earlier successful containment of the virus.

The Epidemic Command Centre announced 18 new confirmed cases on Saturday. All are people infected abroad, with six having returned from the UK, five from the US, and the rest from other European countries, Egypt and South Africa.

Of the 18 people, 11 were diagnosed while under a broadened screening and isolation programme the government imposed this week targeting people who arrived since the beginning of the month, during the period when the pandemic escalated in Europe and America.

All but one are Taiwanese who came back from study, work or group travel abroad.

India fears coronavirus spread as migrant workers evacuate Mumbai

Amy Kazmin reports from New Delhi

Migrant workers are streaming out of Mumbai, returning to their home villages across India, as the state of Maharashtra shuts down most workplaces until at least March 31 to try to stop the worsening coronavirus outbreak.

The mass exodus of the taxi drivers, auto rickshaw drivers and other workers who normally keep India’s financial capital humming saw thousands of people packing themselves into crowded trains ahead of Sunday’s “people’s curfew,” when both long-distance and local train services are being drastically reduced.

There is concern that some of those now leaving the city could already be infected with the coronavirus and will unwittingly spread the disease to their relatively impoverished home communities, where ramshackle rural health care infrastructure would struggle to cope with critically ill patients.

About 4.6m of Mumbai’s 18m residents were migrants from other parts of India, according to 2011 census data.

In Maharashtra, authorities have ordered all businesses and workplaces – except shops selling essential items such as milk, food and pharmaceuticals – to close down.

India is also gearing up for a nationwide, one-day “people’s curfew tomorrow,” during which the prime minister, Narendra Modi, has appealed to the entire population to stay home.

India’s Tata Motors to reduce production to “skeletal” level

Benjamin Parkin reports from Mumbai

India’s Tata Motors said it was scaling down operations at one of its main manufacturing plants ahead of a potential closure.

Tata Motors managing director Guenter Butschek said the company would reduce operations at its plant in Pune to “skeletal” levels by Monday, and be ready to close entirely by Tuesday if necessary.

Pune is located in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, which has been hardest hit by the virus in India.

Maharashtra has at least 49 of India’s 271 confirmed cases, prompting the local government to order the closure of all workplaces.

Part of the Tata Group, Tata Motors is one of India’s largest vehicle manufacturers and the owner of Jaguar Land Rover.

JLR said this week it was closing all UK facilities until mid-April.

India to expand coronavirus testing as officials brace for surge

Stephanie Findlay reports from New Delhi

India’s coronavirus cases climbed to 271 on Saturday, the health ministry said, as the country announced it would expand testing to all serious pneumonia cases and braced for a surge in infections.

India has tested fewer than 15,000 people for coronavirus since the global outbreak began, an amount equivalent to the daily capacity of South Korea.

The severity of the crisis has hit the country’s political class after Bollywood singer Kanika Kapoor tested positive for coronavirus and was booked for negligence, the Press Trust of India reported. The singer had recently attended a series of gatherings where political leaders were in attendance.

“For the past 4 days I have had signs of flu, I got myself tested and it came positive for Covid-19,” said Ms Kapoor in a statement on Instagram. “My family and I are in complete quarantine now and following medical advice on how to move forward.”

In response to Ms Kapoor’s diagnosis, the former chief minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje, said she was voluntarily in quarantine after attending a dinner with Ms Kapoor.

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As India prepares to do a countrywide curfew on Sunday, its biggest private airline, IndiGo, said it would operate only 60 per cent of its normal domestic schedule.

“Most of our international flights are suspended and additionally, given the reduction in domestic demand, we are trimming our domestic India operations by approximately 25% for now,” said the carrier in a statement on Friday.

Singapore reports its first deaths in coronavirus outbreak

Singapore has announced the country’s first two fatalities caused by coronavirus, Stefania Palma reports.

A 75-year-old Singaporean woman with a history of hypertension and chronic heart disease died after 26 days in a hospital intensive care unit, authorities said.

The second fatality was a 64-year-old Indonesian man with a history of heart disease who arrived in the city-state on March 13 and was admitted in an ICU on the same day.

“We are deeply saddened by their passing,” said Gan Kim Yong, Singapore’s health minister.

“I understand that Singaporeans will be affected by this news,” he added. “But we must take courage and continue to play our part to fight this virus.”

United Arab Emirates reports first coronavirus fatalities

The United Arab Emirates has announced its first coronavirus fatalities, state-run media reported on Saturday.

The official WAM news agency said a 78-year-old man who had arrived in the country from a trip to Europe had died on Friday from a heart attack “coinciding with complications from the coronavirus disease”.

A 58-year-old foreign resident who had prior chronic illnesses also died on Friday, the agency reported.

The UAE has 140 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with 31 recoveries, according to health ministry data.

United Airlines to reduce flights by 95% as demand plunges

United Airlines plans to cut international flight capacity for April by 95 per cent, the company said on Friday, Claire Bushey reports from Chicago.

The Chicago-based carrier and its competitors are suffering from the sudden, precipitous drop in demand for air travel as governments restrict travel and consumers shy away from it as the coronavirus spreads.

The airline industry is seeking a $50bn bailout from US taxpayers, and United’s top executives said Friday the company will cut payroll if it does not receive the aid.

The airline will end service on almost all transatlantic routes on March 22, southbound departures to Latin America on March 24 and trans-Pacific routes on March 25. One or two routes will remain open in each region a few days longer, and United will continue limited service to Mexico and Guam.

All service to Canada will be suspended on April 1.

The airline said it was working with the federal and local governments to gain permission to operate in areas with travel restrictions to bring stranded customers back to the US.

New Zealand reports 13 more coronavirus cases

New Zealand’s health ministry reported on Saturday that 13 new cases of coronavirus had been confirmed in the past 24 hours.

The patients are in Wellington, Auckland, Waikato, Taupo, Manawatu and Nelson.

The country now has 52 confirmed cases and four others that are “probable”, authorities said.

“Most of these cases are travel-related but as yet, in at least two instances, no link to overseas travel has been ascertained and we are continuing to investigate,” the ministry said in a statement.

“We always knew cases apparently not linked to imported cases would happen and we are prepared,” the country’s director-general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website.

Pakistan coronavirus cases rise sharply to 450

Farhan Bokhari reports from Islamabad

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan shot up to more than 450 with three deaths, prompting urgent calls for the country to intensify its response to the outbreak.

Saturday’s toll is more than five times the number of cases reported just a week ago, according to senior government and health officials.

The sharp increase has been largely attributed to Muslim pilgrims who returned from Iran, according to one senior government official in the south-western city of Quetta.

“It took us time to enforce strict quarantine facilities at Taftan,” he said, referring to Pakistan’s main border crossing along the Iranian border.

In Taftan, many pilgrims were kept quarantined in dirty camps, crammed together in tents with little access to facilities, a situation that has underlined the country’s lack of resources to deal with the crisis.

Health officials have said many of those who traveled to Iran have eventually returned to parts of the southern Sindh province, the region home to more than half of Pakistan’s confirmed cases.

Prime minister Imran Khan’s government has ordered the closure of all schools and colleges until early April and delayed high school examinations.

On Friday, a leading businessman told the FT that the outbreak has had “a devastating impact on Pakistan just at the wrong time” as the country is in the middle of a $6bn IMF lending programme that started in 2019.

On Tuesday, the central bank’s decision to lower interest rates by 75 basis points to 12.5 per cent disappointed many business people who wanted significantly larger cuts.

“We are in a state of war. Pakistan needs to fight this war as it should be fought” said the businessman.

New cases of coronavirus in South Korea top 100

South Korea on Saturday reported more than 100 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, fuelling concerns about new cluster infections and imported cases, Song Jung-a reports from Seoul.

The 147 new cases brought the country’s total number of infections to 8,799, according to the Korea Centres for Disease Control and prevention. The sharp increase in new infections came after the daily infection rate fell to double digits this week, except on Wednesday.

Many of the new confirmed patients were elderly people in rest homes in the country’s southeast region, which has been at the centre of the virus outbreak.

A 20-year-old man in Seoul who had recently visited Canada also tested positive.

Eight more deaths were reported, bringing the total number of fatalities to 102, mostly elderly patients with underlying illnesses.

The pace of daily new infections has shown signs of slowing since the second week of March but health authorities remain on high alert over new clusters of infections.

Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun said on Saturday the government would use up to Won3.8tn ($3bn) in disaster funds to support small merchants and self-employed and low-income people affected by the fast spread of Covid-19.

Hong Kong sees spike as China reports no new cases for 3rd day

China reported no new domestically transmitted cases of coronavirus for the third consecutive day on Friday, according to the National Health Commission, Nicolle Liu and Tom Mitchell report.

The commission said 41 new confirmed cases were reported on Friday, all of them imported. China’s total number of confirmed cases now stands at 81,008 with 3,255 deaths.

No new confirmed cases were found in Hubei province, Chinese authorities added.

Beijing accounted for 14 of the 41 imported cases in China. Fears of a surge in the capital sparked by people returning from overseas has led to the imposition of strict new quarantine measures.

Meanwhile Hong Kong reported its largest single day increase in new cases, with 48 recorded on Friday.

As in China and other countries across the region, the Chinese territory is now focused on a “second wave” of infections carried by people returning from overseas.

Authorities said 35 of Friday’s new cases in Hong Kong were imported. Since Thursday all people arriving in the territory have been required to quarantine themselves for 14 days.

Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach closed over social distancing outcry

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

Authorities have temporarily closed Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach following strong criticism of people who broke social distancing rules by gathering in large numbers to enjoy the sunny weather.

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Australia’s health minister, Greg Hunt, said on Saturday the overwhelming majority of Australians were trying to slow the spread of the coronavirus but warned some people were “breaking the rules” and must stop. “What happened at Bondi was unacceptable,” he said.

Bondi’s famous white sand, crescent-shaped beach was packed with people on Friday, as a spell of hot weather encouraged beachgoers to enjoy the sun.

https://twitter.com/Dochansra/status/1241106171374649344

Photographs and videos of the crowds circulated on social media shortly after Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, introduced new rules on social distancing in a bid to stop the rapid increase in positive cases in Australia, which are now at least 874.

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Meanwhile, on Saturday the state of Victoria announced a A$1.7bn “economic survival and jobs package”, which includes full payroll tax refunds for small and medium sized businesses for the 2019-2020 financial year.

Honduras imposes ‘absolute’ curfew on its citizens

Jude Webber reports from Mexico City

Honduras imposed a nationwide “absolute curfew” on its citizens from 6pm until March 29 in a bid to contain the spread of coronavirus in the Central American country.

The government said in a statement that the national supplier of basic products, Banasupro, would tour neighbourhoods to serve customers.

Supermarkets, pharmacies, tortilla shops, grocery stores and fast food delivery outlets would be authorised to make home deliveries, provided they showed identification to the police. Honduras has 24 confirmed cases.

The agricultural and agribusiness sector, as well as food delivery companies, are exempt from the measure. The government has closed all its borders – land, sea and air – but freight is still allowed.

GM to aid medical ventilator manufacturing

Claire Bushey reports from Chicago

General Motors said on Friday it would help a suburban Seattle manufacturer produce medical ventilators faster to help US efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

The car maker said it would consult on logistics, purchasing and manufacturing to help Ventec Life Systems scale up its operations.

Earlier on Friday, Donald Trump cited GM at a White House briefing when asked which US companies the administration had asked to make healthcare equipment like ventilators and face masks.

“With GM’s help, Ventec will increase ventilator production,” said Chris Kiple, Ventec’s chief executive, on Friday. “By tapping their expertise, GM is enabling us to get more ventilators to more hospitals much faster. This partnership will save lives.”

Mr Kiple told the Seattle Times earlier this week that the company has struggled to ramp up production because of its sprawling global supply chain.

GM, along with Ford, has had discussions this week with the federal government about using the automakers’ manufacturing capacity to make breathing equipment for patients suffering from Covid-19.

The plan raised questions not only because making medical devices calls for different equipment and manufacturing parameters than making cars, but because the Detroit Three shut their US plants this week in an attempt to slow the spread of the pandemic.

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Mary Barra, GM’s chief executive, said: “We will continue to explore ways to help in this time of crisis.”

Singapore reports 40 new cases of coronavirus

Singapore reported 40 new cases of coronavirus by midnight Friday, according to the city-state’s health ministry.

Officials confirmed 30 imported and 10 local cases of Covid-19 infection in Singapore. The imported cases had travel history to Europe, North America, Asean countries and other parts of Asia.

All except one were returning residents, the ministry said.

Asia: what you might have missed

US stocks notched up their biggest weekly drop since the financial crisis, with actions by central banks to support economies and financial markets hit by the coronavirus pandemic failing to push Wall Street higher on Friday.

A staffer in the office of US vice-president Mike Pence has tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a spokeswoman.

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Illinois governor JB Pritzker issued a “shelter in place” order Friday, making it the third state after California and New York to tell residents to stay home.

Delta Air Lines forecast second quarter revenue would be $10bn less than a year earlier and revealed it was burning through $50m in cash a day. The Atlanta-based airline is suspending dividend payments and share buybacks as it tries to preserve cash in the wake of the swift decline in air traffic wrought by Covid-19.

At least 22 people who travelled with Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro to meet his US counterpart, Donald Trump, in Florida earlier this month have tested positive for coronavirus. Both presidents say they tested negative, but on Friday Mr Bolsonaro said he may do another test.

Greece‘s central bank has slashed its economic growth forecast for 2020 from 2.4 per cent to zero, warning that output in the first two quarters could plunge as the coronavirus outbreak picked up pace.

Coronavirus latest: Bank of England willing to pump unlimited money into financial system


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BoE says it is prepared to pump unlimited money into economy

Chris Giles, economics editor, writes:

The new Bank of England governor, Andrew Bailey, said on Wednesday the UK central bank was willing to pump unlimited quantities of money into the economy via its new commercial paper facility.

Speaking to journalists on a conference call from Threadneedle Street, Mr Bailey, who took over from Mark Carney at midnight on Monday, said the ambition was to limit economic damage to “disruptive” not “destructive”, but the situation was serious.

He said it was not yet time to shut financial markets because they had not lost their integrity and their ability to price. “I don’t think we’re there at all,” Mr Bailey said.

Sterling’s rapid decent to below $1.19 was not something he could explain easily, but he said the Monetary Policy Committee would take it into account at next week’s meeting.  

The BoE governor was keen to clarify the details of the commercial paper facility, announced by Rishi Sunak, chancellor, on Tuesday. He said that over the weekend it had become clear that large companies, as well as small ones, were running short of cash and needed facilities to borrow quickly and cheaply.

The BoE would use the commercial paper facility to print money and use it to lend directly to large companies that issued new commercial paper. It would be up and running by the start of next week, he said.

JetBlue cuts capacity by 40%, secures $1bn credit line

JetBlue, one of the US’s ten biggest airlines, said it would cut capacity by at least 40 per cent in coming months and had secured a $1bn credit line among steps it was taking to ride out the impact of the coronavirus.

The carrier called on the Trump administration for help, echoing calls by airlines in the US and globally for their governments to provide financial support.

JetBlue said in a statement on Wednesday its sales so far this month had “fallen sharply” and over the past several days has taken in an average of less than $4m a day, while also issuing $20m of credits a day to customers for cancelled bookings. That compares with a “typical” day last March when they took in about $22m from bookings and fees.

The company said the dramatic loss in revenue meant it would have to start dipping into its cash reserves, which stood at about $1.2bn but could easily eroded by an expenses bill that runs into the millions each day.

JetBlue said it had secured an extra credit line, allowing it to borrow $1bn, but described it as a “band-aid solution that holds us over.”

To help preserve cash, JetBlue said it would reduce spending wherever it could, and chief executive Robin Hayes and chief operating officer would take a 50 per cent pay cut. As well as cutting flight capacity, JetBlue said it was looking for ways to slow deliveries of aircraft and would also reduce operational spending.

“We are going to need significant government help” to be able to play a role in “getting life back to normal and supporting economic recovery” when the pandemic passes, Robin Hayes, chief executive, and Joanna Geraghty, chief operating officer, said in a joint statement.

JetBlue shares were down 8.2 per cent in premarket trade on Wednesday, while S&P 500 futures were down 3.7 per cent.

Italy could extend lockdown

Miles Johnson in Rome reports:

The Italian government has not ruled out extending its nationwide lockdown measures to beyond their original end date of the April 3, depending on how its efforts to contain the worst coronavirus outbreak in Europe progress.

“We will evaluate the situation in the coming days on the basis of the numbers,” said transport minister Paola De Micheli in an interview with Italian television.

On March 9, Italy became the first European country to enact a nationwide lockdown, imposing stringent social distancing measures and closing all non-essential shops as well as schools and universities.

If Italy decides to extend the original time frame for its lockdown, which is expected by economists to drive the country into its worst recession since the financial crisis, it will set an important precedent for how long other European countries who have followed its social distancing measures will need to keep them in place.

In recent days the pace of increase in new cases in Italy has slowed, however the absolute number of coronavirus infections is still showing no clear signs of peaking. The virus has killed 2503 in Italy.

Pound tumbles below $1.19

The pound has deepened its declines through the day, tumbling to levels not seen since the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote.

Sterling fell 1.8 per cent to $1.840 on Wednesday, and has now fallen more than 10 per cent in value in as many days. The currency has not consistently traded under $1.20 since the 1980s.

The declines have come against the backdrop of a strengthening dollar, as companies and banks hoard the US currency to pay their debts and keep business flowing.

“A combination of the safe haven dollar bid, the coronavirus stock sell-off and liquidation of long positions following the UK election are all weighing on the pound,” said Neil Jones, head of foreign exchange sales for financial institutions at Mizuho Bank.

“Meanwhile, in the background latest Brexit developments look to be pushing the chance of a negotiated deal further into the future, raising uncertainty,” he added.

UK to make call on school closures ‘imminently’

Laura Hughes in London reports:

Boris Johnson said the government would be taking further decisions “imminently” on the possible closure of schools across the UK.

Speaking in the House of Commons, the prime minister said:

The House should expect further decisions to be taken imminently on schools and how to make sure that we square the circle both of making sure that we stop the spread of the disease but also of making sure that we relieve as much as we can pressure on our National Health Service.

It comes amid speculation that schools could stay partially open for children whose parents are working in the NHS and other public services.

Boris Johnson set to unveil new measures to support workers

Jim Pickard in London reports:

Boris Johnson has promised new measures to help workers hit by the pandemic — with an announcement expected within the next 48 hours.

The prime minister, speaking in a depleted House of Commons for the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions — MPs were urged to stay away — said the government was working closely with unions on how to help the self-employed and those laid off.

Mr Johnson also revealed that the government was close to developing a test to discover whether people have already had the coronavirus.

But opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said time was running out for the government to announce how it would support hard-hit workers and renters affected by the crisis.

More property funds set to be suspended amid valuation’uncertainty’

Matthew Vincent in London reports:

Britain’s fund management trade body has warned that more property funds will have to be suspended as coronavirus disruption triggers UK rules on valuation “uncertainty”.

Under incoming Financial Conduct Authority regulations governing illiquid assets, such as commercial property, any fund with more than 20 per cent of its holdings subject to “material valuation uncertainty” will be required to suspend investments and withdrawals.

However, the Investment Association has said that while these new rules do not come into force until September 2020, the existing regulations would still require fund managers to consider suspending funds in current market conditions.

It said:

The UK commercial property market is facing unprecedented circumstances as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak and so valuation firms can no longer make reliable judgements on value. This is known as ‘material value uncertainty’. Valuers are still able to produce valuations and make professional judgements but with less certainty than under normal market conditions.

With so many property funds investing in hotels, shops, warehouses and restaurants directly affected by the coronavirus uncertainty, the Association of Real Estate Funds has concluded that many will therefore need to suspend.

Paul Richards, managing director of AREF said on Wednesday that further would be necessary “to ensure that investors, mostly long-term pension savers, are protected … Strict FCA regulations apply, in order to ensure that all investors are treated fairly.”

Standard Life joins asset managers in gating property funds

Siobhan Riding in London reports:

Standard Life Aberdeen has joined three other asset managers in suspending UK property funds in the wake of the coronavirus-driven market turbulence.

Investors will be blocked from withdrawing their money from the £1.7bn Standard Life Investments UK Real Estate Fund and £1.1bn Aberdeen UK Property Fund.

Like the other managers that have suspended property funds in recent days, SLA said it was taking the step because of “material uncertainty” over the valuation of its underlying assets.

“Markets around the world have experienced huge disruption as Covid-19 spreads and trading in the UK property market is being severely impacted,” it said.

As a result the funds’ independent valuers have informed us it is not currently possible to provide accurate and reliable valuations for certain assets. We are therefore unable to produce a price for the funds which we can say with any confidence reflects the true value of the assets.

SLA is the fourth asset manager to suspend its open-ended property funds in three days, and more are expected to follow. Around £5.8bn in investors’ money is now trapped in the funds, which include strategies run by Aviva Investors, Kames Capital and Janus Henderson.

The last time property funds were forced to gate en masse was following the UK’s referendum on EU membership in June 2016. This sparked questions about whether an open-ended fund structure, which allows investors to withdraw their money daily, is compatible with assets such as property that can take months to sell.

Italy earmarks €500m for Alitalia rescue

Miles Johnson in Rome reports:

Italy has set aside €500m of rescue funds to inject into Alitalia to stop the country’s national carrier from failing during the coronavirus outbreak that has grounded airlines across Europe.

According to the details of the government’s €25bn “save Italy” economic package published by the government overnight, Alitalia can now be taken over by a new company controlled by Italy’s ministry of economy, or via another state-controlled vehicle if needed.

Alitalia, which is heavily lossmaking and has not turned a profit since the start of the millennium, has already received €900m in loans from the Italian state since 2017, with Rome arguing it would eventually repay these by selling the airline back to the private sector. Up until now no buyer has been found.

Multiple attempts to sell the airline have failed, and the European Union Competition Commission opened an investigation into whether the loans constituted illegal state aid to the company. Yesterday the Competition Commission said it was “ready to work with Italy” on its aid for Alitalia, and that it was ”well aware of the difficult situation that the aviation sector is facing due to the Covid-19 outbreak”.

Poland announces $52bn stimulus package

James Shotter in Warsaw reports:

Poland’s government has unveiled an emergency 212bn zloty ($52bn) stimulus package to help mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on the central European country’s economy.

Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that the package, worth around 9 per cent of GDP, would help people and businesses cope with the fallout from the crisis, which has seen large sectors of the Polish economy grind to a halt.

The measures include allowing people to delay social security contributions, an income support scheme for companies that can prove that the crisis has hit their turnover, 7.5bn zloty of additional funding for the health service, and a 30bn zloty infrastructure investment fund.

The package comes a day after Poland’s central bank cut its benchmark interest rate by half a point to a new record low of 1 per cent, and announced a series of measures to boost liquidity for banks, which have themselves pledged to allow people and businesses to suspend loan repayments for three months.

He said:

I’m convinced that this is a very good combination of different actions, different funds…in order that we can come through these coming months, especially these critical few months… three, four, maybe five, as unscathed as possible, and then later work on rebuilding confidence.

However, Mr Morawiecki also took a swipe at the EU for not doing more to help out during the crisis, noting that the bloc had not promised Poland any new funds.

Those that were proposed a few days ago are not new money. They are funds that were allocated in the previous 2014-2020 budget period … The elasticity that the EU is proposing is of course a good step, but at the moment new funds have not been proposed. It’s clear that in this case the EU isn’t acting as fast as nation states.

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Global Covid-19 case count soars to more than 200,000

Steve Bernard, a data visualisation journalist, reports:

The global total of confirmed cases of the Covid-19 disease has surged through 200,000 with Spain adding 2,538 cases alone, an increase of 18 per cent since Tuesday.

The total deaths now stand at 8,229, with many countries yet to report their figures for Wednesday.

Kremlin says it would like to see higher oil prices

David Sheppard in London and Henry Foy in Moscow report:

Russia has said it would like to see higher oil prices in the first acknowledgement that the crash in crude to near $25 a barrel is proving painful for its economy.

Oil prices have roughly halved this month since Saudi Arabia launched an oil price war following Russia’s refusal to join the kingdom in making deeper production cuts to respond to the demand-sapping effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Of course this is a low price, I would like it to be higher,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday.

In response to a question regarding the potential of Russia re-engaging with Opec and Saudi Arabia, Mr Peskov said:

We monitor the situation on the international oil markets very carefully, we analyze this situation and try to make short-term forecasts and medium-term forecasts. A position will be formulated, depending on these.

Russia has previously said it can withstand lower oil prices for years due to having built up its financial reserves. The country requires a lower price — around $45 a barrel — to balance its budget than Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom is raising supply to the market by almost a quarter next month, to near 12.3m barrels a day, discounting its crude to try win customers.

Saudi Arabia and Russia have cancelled technical meetings of the Opec+ alliance, which was previously restricting output in a bid to prop up prices.

But some analysts believe Saudi Arabia wants to push Russia back to the table by crashing the price as quickly as possible. The coronavirus pandemic has slashed demand as travel slows and airlines are grounded.

US benchmark crude hit a 17-year low just above $25 a barrel on Wednesday, with Brent falling towards $27 a barrel.

Denmark launches $6bn relief package

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic Correspondent, reports:

Denmark launched a DKr40bn ($6bn) package to help small businesses and the self-employed as it seeks to shield the most vulnerable companies and workers from the effects of the coronavirus.

Nicolai Wammen, the centre-left finance minister, proposed that the Danish state would cover costs such as rent or electricity bills, aimed mostly at small and mid-sized companies.

It is also offering compensation to self-employed workers for lost revenues as they are not covered by a separate agreement for the state to pay a large part of the salaries of laid-off workers.

“These are actions you have never seen before. It is quite extraordinary, but we are in an extraordinary situation,” said Mr Wammen.

Welsh nationalist party seeks ban on people visiting remote second homes

Jim Pickard in London

Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, has urged the government to ban people from visiting remote second homes – because of the stress it could impose on local NHS services.

Liz Saville Roberts, leader of the party in Westminster, said local GPs were concerned that healthcare services in rural Wales would not be sufficiently resourced to deal with extra demand.

Ms Saville Roberts urged the Welsh and UK governments to designate such travel plans as ‘non-essential’, and those considering self-isolating should do so at their main residence where they are likely to be closer to family support networks and where local health and social care plans have been made appropriate to the population.

UK bank lobby group warns customers to be aware of scams

Matthew Vincent in London

City lobbying group UK Finance is urging bank customers to be aware of criminals exploiting the coronavirus outbreak to commit fraud.

In its latest set of data, it said authorised push payment fraud – better known as bank transfer scams – cost Britons £456m in 2019. This was “driven in part by criminals abusing online platforms to scam their victims”.

However, victims received £41 million in compensation in cases assessed under the industry’s voluntary reimbursement code introduced in May 2019. And the banking and finance industry succeeded in stopping more than £1.8bn-worth of fraud attempts in the year.

UK Finance is now advising customers to follow the advice of the Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign, to avoid scams seeking to exploit concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. This urges customers to pause before agreeing to make any transfer, and “reject, refuse, or ignore any requests” that appear suspicious.

MPs told to stay away from House of Commons

Sebastian Payne in London reports:

Conservative and Labour MPs have been asked to stay away from the House of Commons chamber this morning.

In a text to Tories, deputy chief whip Stuart Andrew requested:

In order to ensure that we follow the advice being given to the public, it has been decided that only people on the Order Paper should be in the Chamber for both Northern Ireland and Prime Minister’s Questions. We respectfully ask you adhere to this message.

Labour MPs received a similar message from their whips:

If you are not on the order paper or seeking to get called could you please not come into the chamber. If you are in the chamber could you please space yourselves out.

PMQs, which begins at midday, will therefore be much emptier than usual.

Chairman of Santander Portugal dies from Covid-19

Peter Wise in Lisbon reports

António Vieira Monteiro, the chairman and former chief executive of Santander Portugal, one of the country’s leading banks, died on Wednesday after contracting the Covid-19 virus, two people familiar with the situation said. He was 73.

He was chief executive of the bank, the Portuguese arm of Spain’s Santander group, from 2012 to 2018 and then became chairman of the board.

Mr Vieira Monteiro went into quarantine after returning from a trip to Italy, the people, who asked not to be identified, said. He was later treated in hospital.

He is the second victim of the Covid-19 virus in Portugal.

Oman to offer additional liquidity for its banks in effort to spur lending

Simeon Kerr in Dubai

Oman will offer 8bn rials ($20.8bn) in additional liquidity for banks as the sultanate seeks to dampen the economic impact of the coronavirus.

The central bank adjusted capital buffer requirements and credit ratios, calling on lenders to facilitate lending to sectors that have been impacted by the economic fallout, including healthcare, tourism and travel.

The financial sector was told to respond to requests to postpone repayment instalments for six months from affected companies, especially to small- and medium-sized enterprises.

The economic package came as the country went into a virtual lockdown, only allowing Omanis to enter the sultanate and banning public gatherings.

Oman, with modest oil reserves and significant debts, is one of the most exposed economies among the Arab Gulf states to global turmoil.

Iranian fatalities pass 1,000

Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran reports

Iran’s death toll from Covid-19 today increased to 1,135 from 988 yesterday, while 17,361 individuals have now tested positive.

“I desperately urge people to stay at home,” said deputy health minister Dr Alireza Raisi, as he provided the updated casualty figures on Wednesday. “Bazaars are still busy and people continue travelling.”

Dr Raisi warned that if Iranians continued to ignore official advice during the two weeks of Persian New Year holidays due to begin on Friday, the virus would spread further . “These two weeks may turn into two months,” he said.

Belgium reports sharpest rise in cases to date

Jim Brunsden in Brussels reports:

The Belgian health ministry announced on Wednesday that the total number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the country had risen by 243, the largest one-day increase since the crisis began.

The increase takes the total number of cases in Belgium to 1,486 and marks a 19 per cent jump.

Four more people have also died from the virus. A total of 14 people have now died in the country from the outbreak.

The Belgian government yesterday announced strict confinement rules as it seeks to slow the spread of Covid-19. The moves, which share similarities to measures in place in France, include shutting all shops except supermarkets, restaurants, pharmacies and newsagents. People have been told not to leave their homes unless on essential business, and all types of gatherings have been banned.

Companies must ensure maximum teleworking and mandatory social distancing, or close their offices. The measures will stay in place until at least April 5.

Glastonbury Festival postponed

Glastonbury Festival, which was due to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, has been postponed to summer 2021, its organisers have announced.

The five-day festival was set to attract up to 200,000 revellers to Worthy Farm in Somerset in June.

Organisers Michael and Emily Eavis said in a statement posted to Twitter:

Clearly this was not a course of action we hoped to take for our 50th anniversary events, but following the new government measures announced this week – and in times of such unprecedented uncertainty – this is now our only viable option.

The organisers said that while the situation in June may be much improved, it was no longer viable to set the festival up over the next three months, a job involving thousands of crew.

Indonesia’s mortality rate surpasses Italy’s

Stefania Palma in Singapore reports:

Indonesia has reported a sharp jump in people dying from Covid-19, pushing its mortality rate above that of Italy.

Deaths in the south-east Asian nation, home to the world’s fourth-largest population, have almost quadrupled from five to 19, while confirmed cases have jumped to 227 after a record daily increase of 55.

Its mortality rate has climbed to 8.4 per cent, compared with 7.9 per cent in Italy, which has the highest number of confirmed cases and deaths outside China.

Meanwhile, 117 more Malaysians have become infected, taking the total to 790.

Yellen and Bernanke: The Fed must reduce long-term damage

Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke, former US Federal Reserve chairs, write:

The Fed and other policymakers … must ensure that the economic damage from the pandemic is not long-lasting.

Ideally, when the effects of the virus pass, people will go back to work, to school, to the shops, and the economy will return to normal. In that scenario, the recession may be deep, but at least it will have been short.

But that isn’t the only possible scenario: if critical economic relationships are disrupted by months of low activity, the economy may take a very long time to recover. Otherwise healthy businesses might have to shut down due to several months of low revenues. Once they have declared bankruptcy, re-establishing credit and returning to normal operations may not be easy.

If a financially strapped firm lays off — or declines to hire — workers, it will lose the experienced employees needed to resume normal business. Or a family temporarily without income might default on its mortgage, losing its home.

To avoid permanent damage from the virus-induced downturn, it is important to ensure that credit is available for otherwise sound borrowers who face a temporary period of low income or revenues.

One of the Fed’s principal goals is to ensure that credit is available. It has strongly encouraged banks to work with borrowers suffering from temporary income losses, and it has lowered the interest rate it charges to banks who borrow from the Fed’s discount window.

The Fed’s purchases of mortgage securities should lower mortgage rates and make it easier to obtain or refinance a mortgage.

Read Janet Yellen and Ben Bernanke’s full FT op-ed here

Forecasters slash projections for UK economy

Chris Giles, Economics Editor, reports:

Economic forecasters are scrambling to slash projections for the UK economy in the wake of the virus outbreak. The first signs of it came in the monthly UK Treasury round-up of independent forecasts.

The average forecast for 2020 growth in the UK has dropped to 0.8 per cent. New forecasts set in the past month were lower at just 0.6 per cent growth this year. The newest from groups such as Capital Economic suggest a recession. By this time next month, everything is likely to be in the red.

Finland’s GDP forecast to shrink 4% – central bank

Richard Milne in Oslo

Finland’s economy is likely to contract by 4 per cent this year due to the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, according to the Nordic country’s central bank.

The Bank of Finland said on Wednesday it had two economic scenarios currently for this year – a fall of 1.5 per cent in GDP or a drop of 4 per cent. It added that the ongoing spread of Covid-19 meant the gloomier scenario was “increasingly likely” under which household consumption would decline significantly and domestic supply chains would be disrupted by measures to contain the pandemic.

The bank said in its interim forecast for 2020: “The Finnish economy began the year in a weak starting position even without the impact of the coronavirus … This year, Finland’s economy will sink into recession on account of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Eurogroup head says EU rules will not impede support measures

Peter Wise in Lisbon reports:

Mário Centeno, head of the eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, guaranteed on Wednesday that EU rules on fiscal deficits and state aid would not obstruct government measures to support national economies during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We will ensure that the EU’s fiscal and state aid rules do not hamper support for our economies,” Mr Centeno, Portugal’s finance minister, said in Lisbon as he announced a €9.2bn government package to support the Portuguese economy. “There is flexibility [within the EU rules] and it will be used in full.”

Mr Centeno said he was borrowing the words of Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank, to emphasise that “we will do everything necessary to confront our difficulties”.

For Portugal, he announced a €3bn line of credit to support companies, particularly in the tourism and restaurant industries, which account for about 15 per cent of the country’s national output and have been hit hard by the pandemic.

The emergency package included a further €5.2bn in tax deferments and €1bn in deferments for social security contributions.

Later on Wednesday Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, Portugal’s president, is scheduled to announce his decision on whether to declare a state of emergency, which would grant the Lisbon government sweeping powers to fight the pandemic.

‘Worst is yet to come,’ says Spain’s prime minister

Daniel Dombey in Madrid reports:

Spain could forfeit as many as three months of economic activity because of the coronavirus, the prime minister said, as he called for an emergency budget to bolster the welfare state and “reconstruct” the country once the immediate health crisis has abated.

“It is obvious that annual GDP will go down, as the European Commission has indicated: 2020 will not have 12 months, but 10 or even nine,” Pedro Sánchez told a near empty chamber of deputies, from which most MPs stayed away for health reasons, with staff disinfecting the podium after each speaker’s turn.

In the economic field, the milestones will be to halt the fall in production and the destruction of employment.. and recover production and employment.

Spain is reeling from one of the world’s fastest spreads of the Covid-19 virus.

But Mr Sánchez warned: “The worst is still to come, when the health system feels the impact of the people who have been exposed, when the days of isolation increase and the economic repercussions arrive.”

His comments indicated the possible duration of the paralysis of Spain’s economy following the nationwide shutdown he decreed on Saturday. Parliament must approve the extraordinary powers under which Mr Sánchez took that step, and opposition leaders have said they would be willing to extend the initial period of 15 days.

Iraq begins curfew

Chloe Cornish in Beirut reports:

Iraq has begun a week-long country-wide curfew as authorities try to contain the spread of the virus.

The country’s health ministry said that 154 people have contracted the illness in Iraq, while 11 sufferers have died so far.

Flights were suspended on Tuesday until March 24th and major religious gatherings have been prohibited. Despite the official lockdown, people in Baghdad reported they were still allowed to walk around freely.

Nigeria imposes travel ban on worst-hit countries

Neil Munshi in Lagos reports:

The Nigerian government has imposed a travel ban on all countries with more than 1,000 cases of coronavirus, as Africa’s most populous nation took its first major step toward containing the pandemic. The move came as the number of cases rose from three to eight on Wednesday morning.

Nigeria’s response has lagged behind other African countries, which have imposed much more stringent travel restrictions and social distancing measures with similarly few cases.

The government also announced that it would suspend all visas on arrival and that anyone arriving from those 13 countries — including China, the US, UK and Italy — would be subject to supervised self-isolation and testing for 14 days.

Africa’s biggest economy is one of the most religious countries in the world, famed for its massive megachurches, but it has yet to ban gatherings of more than 50 people. Schools remain open.

Health experts have warned that Africa, with its fragile health infrastructure, is the part of the world least prepared for a potential pandemic. So far the continent has reported around 500 confirmed cases, mostly connected to travelers from Europe.

https://twitter.com/NigeriaGov/status/1240221641138978821

Scientific adviser says Westminster has ‘a lot’ of Covid-19

Clive Cookson in London has more from Neil Ferguson:

Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College scientist who was the head of the modelling team that led the UK government to adopt stronger social distancing measures to fight coronavirus, developed symptoms of Covid-19 overnight.

After his 7am tweet about developing a high fever in the middle of the night Professor Ferguson felt slightly better this morning — “still grotty” but well enough for a phone interview on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4.

“Central London is really the kind of hotspot in the UK at the moment… in Westminster, there is a lot,” he said. “It is becoming quite a widespread community infection especially in hotspots like London.”

On Monday afternoon, Prof Ferguson attended a Downing Street press conference where the government announced stronger action to keep people apart, based substantially on his team’s warning that otherwise the National Health Service would be overwhelmed and hundreds of thousands would die in the UK.

“I’ve been in so many meetings the last few weeks and a number of my colleagues at universities who’ve been advising government in those meetings have also developed symptoms,” he added.

Prof Ferguson’s illness may add to the pressure on senior politicians, MPs and their advisers to take more stringent social distancing measures themselves.

EmoticonUS cancels Hong Kong visa appointments

The US Consulate in Hong Kong and Macau has cancelled all routine visa appointments until further notice.

“We will resume routine visa services as soon as possible,” the consulate said in a statement.

Emergency appointments for issues such as medical reasons, funerals and urgent business travel were available via an online form.

Brazilian Congress to ‘urgently’ consider call for state of emergency

Andres Schipani in São Paulo reports:

Brazil’s Congress will “urgently” handle a request from the government of President Jair Bolsonaro seeking authorisation from lawmakers to declare a state of emergency in the face of the coronavirus.

Brazil has 291 confirmed cases of the disease and reported its first fatality on Tuesday.

The president, who said he has tested negative for Covid-19, wants to declare a state of emergency to allow the government of Latin America’s largest economy to loosen fiscal targets and release funds to combat the coronavirus. A statement from the president’s office said:

In view of the permanent monitoring of the Covid-19 pandemic, the need to increase public spending to protect the health and jobs of Brazilians and the prospect of falling revenues, the Federal Government will request the National Congress to recognise the state of emergency.

The state of emergency would grant the federal government freedom from tight spending caps, allowing it to direct more money to fight the outbreak.

Rodrigo Maia, the powerful speaker of the lower house, told O Globo newspaper that once the decree is passed along, Congress will “urgently process and approve it so that the government has fiscal space to be able to make the necessary investments to face this crisis”.

The government has already allocated R$147m ($29m) to fight the economic hardships stemming from the coronavirus at a fragile time for the Brazilian economy. The president has also shut its northern border with crisis-stricken Venezuela.

Aviva Investors suspends UK property fund

Siobhan Riding and George Hammond in London report:

Aviva Investors has become the latest asset manager to halt trading in its UK property fund in the wake of the coronavirus-driven market turbulence.

The fund house said it was taking the step to suspend its £461m UK Property fund temporarily after the market sell-off led to “material uncertainty” over the valuation of its underlying assets.

The Aviva Investors fund is the third open-ended property fund to suspend in three days, and more are expected to follow. More than £3bn of investors’ money is trapped in the funds, which includes strategies run by Kames Capital and Janus Henderson.

UK property funds were in “completely uncharted waters”, said John Forbes, an independent property consultant. “What is the value of a pub, a hotel, or retail premises if you can’t use it? What’s the valuation of an office if no one can get into it?”

The last time property funds were forced to gate en masse was following the UK’s referendum on EU membership in June 2016. This sparked questions about whether an open-ended fund structure, which allows investors to withdraw their money daily, is compatible with assets such as property that can take months to sell.

UK calls in military scientists to help fight against virus

Helen Warrell in London reports:

Scientists at the UK defence laboratory Porton Down have been seconded to help public health efforts in mapping and testing for coronavirus as the outbreak spreads.

The Ministry of Defence lab, which was instrumental in identifying the Novichok nerve agent used against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury two years ago, has deployed a small team to work on managing the virus.

“The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is providing hazard assessment, microbiological testing and operational analysis support to government”, the MoD said in a statement.

Porton Down is a secretive laboratory that specialises in researching chemical weapons and dangerous pathogens, such as ebola, plague and anthrax. It has been working on a vaccine against the coronavirus. Matt Hancock, health secretary, visited the lab last month to announce a £20m boost for military scientists who he said were “leading the way” in the search for source of immunity against the disease.

News of Porton Down’s role in the operational side of managing the virus, first reported by the BBC, was welcomed by armed forces minister James Heappey.

https://twitter.com/JSHeappey/status/1240033064090243076

Sterling slides below $1.20

Eva Szalay reports:

The pound slumped below $1.20 to hit multi-decade lows as a global rush to safety continued. The currency is down nearly 10 per cent since the start of the year with most of the losses coming since March 9 when the impact of the coronavirus hit Europe.

The currency is also significantly weaker against the euro, with the pound losing more than 6 per cent since the start of the month and over 8 per cent since January.

On Wednesday morning in Europe sterling traded at $1.1988, the lowest level since 1986. The euro climbed to its strongest since August last year to trade at 91.69p.

Iran’s president mocks Western nations for ‘fighting over tissues’

Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran reports:

Iran is doing better than Western states in keeping its people supplied with food and basic goods, president Hassan Rouhani has said.

The country, which has reported almost 1,000 deaths from coronavirus and is scrambling to secure enough medical equipment amid US sanctions, has “something to be proud of” because supplies of basic commodities remain plentiful, the president said in a live, televised address.

He said:

I insist on this as something to be proud of. Compare this government’s supply of people’s needs in Tehran to that in London, in Berlin and Paris…where their supermarkets’ shelves were emptied. People were fighting over tissues.

This coronavirus was God’s test, so you can compare Iran with other countries.

On Wednesday, supermarkets in Tehran remain well-stocked with food, allowing residents to stock up ahead of the Persian New Year. Still, this contrasts with the nation’s struggles with testing for and treating the coronavirus.

US crude hits lowest level in 17 years, nearing $25 a barrel

The US crude oil benchmark fell to its lowest level since 2003 on Wednesday, dropping towards $25 a barrel as the coronavirus crisis crushes demand while the Saudi-Russia price war boosts supply.

West Texas Intermediate hit a low of $25.88 a barrel, down almost 5 per cent on the day and taking losses since early January to around 60 per cent.

Brent crude, the international marker, dropped 3 per cent to $27.90 a barrel.

Crude prices have collapsed as the coronavirus pandemic threatens the biggest demand drop in the oil market’s history, with countries in Europe and North America locking down or putting restrictions on travel in place to try and curb its spread.

With Saudi Arabia and Russia boosting supply at the same time, as the two oil powerhouses prioritise market share over price, some of the world’s top traders are now warning that storage for crude surplus could be maxed out within months.

For more on this story, click here


Bonds sell off as investors dump liquid assets

Tommy Stubbington in London reports:

Government bond prices around the world tumbled on Wednesday as investors scrambled to dump liquid assets.

The 10-year US Treasury yield surged by 0.2 percentage points to 1.19 per cent, its highest in nearly a month. Germany’s 10-year yield climbed sharply to minus 0.24 per cent, the highest in two months, while UK 10-year yields leapt to 0.74 per cent as funds sold bonds usually considered safe havens even while equity markets dived. Bond yields rise as prices fall.

Traders said the prospect of a big increase in bond issuance in the US and Europe to fund efforts to tackle the coronavirus crisis was further weighing on bond markets, but the absence of any flight to safety suggested a need to raise cash was the driving force.

“This is fire-selling of liquid assets by those who need to meet redemptions,” said Mike Riddell, a portfolio manager at Allianz Global Investors. “A lot of people need cash and they’re liquidating the only thing that they can.”

Moves were even bigger in riskier eurozone government bonds. Italy’s 10-year yield spiked by 0.6 percentage point to 2.7 per cent, up from just 1 per cent at the start of March.

Global equities were also under pressure as investors raced into cash. The UK’s FTSE 100, Germany’ Dax and and France’s CAC 40 all dropped more than 4 per cent.

US S&P 500 futures fell 3.7 per cent, the maximum allowed fall. State Street’s $240bn SPY ETF, which tracks the S&P 500 and is not subject to the same trading limits as futures, fell almost 6 per cent in pre-market dealings, suggesting Wall Street stocks may fall more than futures suggest. The market had rebounded 6 per cent on Tuesday after the worst fall since 1987 the previous day.

SocGen boss promises ‘credit for everyone’

David Keohane in Paris reports:

The chief of French bank Société Générale and the head of its banking federation has promised that “there will be credit for everyone” as France gears up to keep its businesses afloat in the face of the coronavirus.

“There will be credit for everyone, we are here, we have made commitments to be able to process requests in less than five days,” said Frédéric Oudéa on French radio station Europe 1 on Wednesday morning.

While declaring “war” on the virus and putting the country into virtual lockdown earlier this week, president Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed unlimited state financial support for businesses and employees affected by the coronavirus outbreak, including up to €300bn of state guarantees for bank loans to companies

Mr Oudéa, who was speaking as head of the French banking federation, said that “we are waiting in the next two, three days for all the details of the government’s plan, we will be there to help all businesses.”

It’s the heart of the strategy which is the right one, save the business and thereby save the workers.

Volkswagen and Jaguar Land Rover extend central Europe shutdowns

James Shotter in Warsaw reports

Volkswagen and Jaguar Land Rover have announced further plant closures in central Europe as a result of the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

VW said late on Tuesday that it was stopping production at its plants in Poznan and Wrzesnia in Poland, and Hanover in Germany, for 10 days from Thursday, while JLR said that it would stop work at its new factory in Nitra in Slovakia from Friday.

“The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on our entire business: on supply chains, on production, on sales, and on our distribution and service partners,” said Thomas Sedran, head of VW’s Nutzfahrzeuge brand.

For this reason … we have decided to scale down production at all three locations. This decision is the only correct course of action, in order to avoid exposing our workers to any unnecessary health risks.

VW said that its move would affect 24,000 workers in Poland and Germany.

Toyota closes European factories

Peter Campbell, Global Motor Industry Correspondent, reports:

Toyota has closed its remaining European sites, including two plants in the UK, for the foreseeable future, citing supply chain shortages and market uncertainty.

The sites include two in Poland, one in Turkey and a joint plant with PSA in the Czech Republic. Earlier in the week the company shuttered its plants in France and Portugal.

Its closure, which follows BMW’s similar actions on Wednesday, mean only a handful of car factories are open anywhere in Europe.

Of the mainstream facilities:

• Volvo’s operations in Sweden and Kia’s plant in Slovakia are still operational
• Hyundai’s plant in the Czech Republic – which is closely linked to the Kia facility – is also running.
• Jaguar Land Rover’s UK facilities remain open, though the company announced it will close its Slovakian plant from Friday.
• Honda’s UK plant and its motorbike facility in Italy are also operational.
• Aston Martin’s UK plants remain open, the company confirmed on Wednesday.

Why have US stock futures triggered trading curbs?

US stock-index futures have fallen sharply, triggering circuit breakers that are designed to limit volatility outside of Wall Street trading hours.

As we have written about frequently recently, in the US stock-index futures market, these trading curbs are set at a 5 per cent level, meaning S&P 500 futures should not fall by more than that magnitude when equities are not trading.

A peculiar situation has taken hold this week, however, that has added an extra level of complexity to how these measures operate. The price change you will see quoted in the FT and on financial terminals is the per cent change from the previous day’s settlement level on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

The settlement takes place at 4.15pm New York time. That is 15 minutes after the closing bell for the Wall Street equities market.

On Tuesday, that settlement level for the March contract (the one that we are referencing in our coverage) was 2495.50. S&P 500 futures are currently trading at 2,403.5, a fall of 3.7 per cent from the settlement level.

That has triggered the circuit breaker. “But you just said it requires a 5 per cent fall!” you might say (I also asked that very same question).

It turns out the circuit breaker is not built on the settlement level, but instead a “fixing” in the 30 seconds to 4pm in New York. The CME Group sets its trading curbs in this way to “co-ordinate with circuit breakers provisions” for the main US cash equities market.

The co-ordination comes into play when the US stock market opens because US stocks have several of their own circuit breakers that affect the entire cash equities market. The 5 per cent circuit breaker in futures turns off when Wall Street opens, and then matches these levels — 7 per cent, 13 per cent, and 20 per cent.

Here are a few useful links:

-US equities futures settlement levels
-US equities futures price limits
-US equities futures fixing level

Ex-ECB council member calls for ‘full financial firepower’

Arthur Beesley in Dublin reports:

The European Central Bank and EU member states should move immediately to deploy their “full financial power” to stem the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, a former member of the ECB governing council has said.

Patrick Honohan, who was governor of Ireland’s central bank at the height of the eurozone emergency a decade ago, said the ECB’s current leadership and governments should avoid repeating their slow response to the sovereign debt crisis that was criticised for worsening it.

“In facing the sharp economic crisis that is spinning out of the pandemic, European fiscal and monetary policymakers must not forget lessons learned in the 10 years since the euro area crisis got under way. There can be no excuse for repeating the errors that were made then,” Mr Honohan wrote in the Irish Times.

It is a moment for rapid, strong and all-embracing official policy to ensure that the economic side-effects of the pandemic are contained and equitably shared. Europe has the capacity to do this; but in order to be successful, the timidity and suspicion that characterised too much of policy during the euro area crisis must be avoided this time.

Noting a jump in Italian borrowing costs because of market fears that Rome alone will have to sustain coronavirus pressure on its public finances, he called for “urgent action” by European leaders to quash such suspicions.

“The ECB has a clear, immediate role. It could unleash its outright monetary programme (‘whatever it takes’) of asset purchases if Italy were to apply for an International Monetary Fund-style programme,” said Mr Honohan, who was professor of international financial economics at Trinity College Dublin before he became governor in 2009.

European car sales slide as virus impact knocks demand

Valentina Romei in London writes:

Car sales dropped in Europe as the coronavirus impact hit shoppers and added to the disruption due to changes in vehicle taxations in various member states.

The European Automobile Manufacturers Association reported a 7.4 per cent drop in EU passenger registrations in February compared with the same month last year.

Among the largest markets, Germany reported the largest fall with a 10.8 per cent drop, followed by Italy and Spain.

Car sales were badly hit in China where the virus spread first. The Asian country reported a 20 per cent drop in car sales January and an 82 per cent dive in February.

German regulators ease capital rules for banks

Olaf Storbeck in Frankfurt reports:

Germany’s top financial watchdog is scrapping a planned tightening of capital rules for banks in an attempt to give the financial sector more leeway to cope with the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis.

Bonn-based banking regulator Bafin has abandoned last year’s decision to lift the so-called countercyclical capital buffer from zero to 0.25 per cent of risk-weighted assets by July.

“This is a preventive measure intended to strengthen the German banking sector’s ability to lend,” the German Financial Stability Committee, a joint body comprising the Finance Ministry, Bafin and Bundesbank, said in a statement on Wednesday morning.

People familiar with the numbers estimate that the decision will free up around €5.5bn in common equity tier one across the banking sector. The banks can use this additional legroom either to absorb losses or to increase lending to the corporate sector and households.

The regulators had previously decided to increase the counter cyclical buffer in a move to counter growing risks to financial stability from increased bank lending. But the Association of German Banks has been campaigning in favour of looser capital rules since early March, warning that the liquidity needs of German banks will rise “massively” due to the economic fallout of the coronavirus outbreak.


BMW becomes latest carmaker to close European plants

Joe Miller in Frankfurt reports:

BMW will follow Volkswagen and Daimler in shutting down its European plants, as concerns over the safety of staff and the security of the auto supply chain mount.

The Munich-based carmaker said it would also close factories in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and the UK for at least a month, as well as its production line in Rosslyn, South Africa.

The company also revised its guidance for 2020, saying it expected deliveries to be “significantly below the previous year’s level”.

Nicolas Peter, BMW’s chief financial officer, said:

The current uncertainty surrounding future worldwide developments impacted by the coronavirus makes it difficult to provide an accurate forecast for 2020.

“According to the latest developments, our guidance for the full year assumes that the sales situation will deteriorate in all major markets,” he added.

Net profits at BMW fell by almost 30 per cent in 2019, despite record revenues and strong sales of luxury SUVs in the last three months of the year, as the German premium brand poured billions of euros into the development of electric vehicles.

Global cases climb towards 200,000

Steve Bernard, senior data visualisation journalist, reports:

The global death toll from Covid-19 approached 8,000 while cases neared 200,000 after the largest one-day increase reported. with an additional 15,615 cases.

Europe remained the largest contributor with 11,139 cases recorded. Italy, Spain, Germany and France reported increases of more than 1,000 cases, with Italy worst affected on 3,526.

There were an additional 821 deaths worldwide, the highest since the outbreak began, of which 628 were in Europe. In Italy and Spain 345 and 191 died.

Saudi Arabia halts most private sector work

Simeon Kerr in Dubai reports:

Saudi Arabia has suspended work in most of the private sector for 15 days, the state news agency reported.

As Gulf states increase measures to restrict the spread of coronavirus, the Saudi ministry of human resources said on Wednesday that remote working should be implemented in sectors apart from sensitive infrastructure, such as utilities and communications.

The ministry ordered the suspension of main offices in the private sector for 15 days while reducing staffing to no more than 40 per cent at secondary offices to maintain supply chains.

Businesses were also asked to limit contact between employees and monitor them for symptoms of the virus. Workers over the age of 55, pregnant women and others vulnerable to the disease are to be given an additional 14 days’ compulsory leave.

The kingdom, which has reported 171 cases, exempted businesses that provide crucial supplies, such as food and health products, to government agencies.

UK pledges more economic support for individuals

Sebastian Payne reports:

Alok Sharma, UK business secretary, said that the government’s proposals to help businesses had been “well received” but more measures to help individuals and renters would be announced “very soon”.

He told the BBC:

I completely understand that people want us to go further — particularly on this issue about support for employees, for employment … we will come forward in the coming days with further measures.

We will do whatever it takes to protect people’s health, to protect their livelihoods, to protect businesses, and the measures we announced yesterday are a big step. But of course, that is not the end and we will keep the situation under review.”

Mr Sharma said that the government was also examining ways of helping businesses receive more funds. Confirming that further action is planned to help renters struggling with payments, the business secretary said “we are looking very actively” at measures that would be announced “very shortly”.

When asked about the levels of testing for coronavirus, Mr Sharma said the government was ramping up the level of testing but had to remain focused on those who need it the most.

ECB insists it is ready to act as council member stokes debate

Martin Arnold in Frankfurt reports:

The European Central Bank has rebuffed a claim by the head of the Austrian central bank that its monetary policy has reached its limits, in a rare move to officially deny a statement by one of its own governing council members.

The public statement by the ECB, insisting that it “stands ready to adjust all of its measures”, was in response to remarks by Robert Holzmann, the head of Austria’s central bank who frequently criticises ECB monetary policy for being too loose.

The rebuffal underlines the debate that is rumbling on within the ECB’s rate-setting committee over how it should respond to the crisis caused by coronavirus.

Mr Holzmann in Austria’s Der Standard newspaper on Wednesday stated that ECB president Christine Lagarde had said that “monetary policy has reached its limits”.

The ECB said its governing council was in unanimous agreement that in addition to the easing measures it announced on Thursday it would be monitoring the consequences of the pandemic and adjusting its measures as appropriate.

Miner Ferrexpo defers dividend decision

Neil Hume in London reports:

Ferrexpo, a major supplier of iron ore to the steel industry in Europe and Asia, has reported higher annual profits but said it will not declare a dividend until the impact of the coronavirus pandemic becomes clearer.

The London-listed company on Wednesday said it would defer a decision on shareholder payouts to an “appropriate time when the market situation and the effect of the Covid-19 virus has become clearer”.

Analysts had forecast the company, which has a strong balance sheet, to declare a final dividend of about 13 cents per share, taking payments for 2019 to 26 cents a share.

Ferrexpo said earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation, the measure tracked by analysts, rose 17 per cent to $586m in 2019 boosted by higher prices for its products. The result was roughly in line with market forecasts.

From its mines in Ukraine, Ferrexpo produces pellets, small balls of high-grade iron ore that are fed directly in the blast furnaces. Its biggest customers are in Europe and Asia.

The price of the steel-making ingredient rose last year helped by a string of supply disruptions and strong demand from China. But there are fears it could decline this year because of the stockpiles of steel that are building up in China.

Russia to fall into budget deficit

Henry Foy in Moscow reports:

Russia’s budget will swing into a deficit this year due to the crash in oil prices and the impact of coronavirus, the country’s finance minister said.

Russia this month pulled out of an oil production agreement with Saudi Arabia, sparking a price war exacerbated by plunging demand for crude caused by the pandemic that sent oil prices crashing below $30 a barrel.

“A decrease in energy prices has always been one of the main risk factors for our economy. Now a much more serious problem has been added: coronavirus infection,” Anton Siluanov said. “Unfortunately, the situation is not developing in the best way.”

Russia’s 2020 budget envisaged a Rbs930bn ($12bn) surplus, but it will now be forced to tap its national wealth fund to offset an estimated Rbs3tn ($38.5bn) reduction in oil revenues this year, according to Mr Siluanov.

“Of course we will switch to a deficit budget this year,” he said. Cash will be provided to businesses and regional authorities to weather the impact of the pandemic.

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European stocks drop 3% as renewed tumult sweeps markets

Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong, Philip Georgiadis in London and Leo Lewis in Tokyo report:

European and Asian stocks dropped on Wednesday, as government measures to shield economies from the impact of the coronavirus failed to reassure investors.

London’s FTSE 100 fell 3.4 per cent at the open as concern over the global economy snuffed out a brief market rally. The losses were spread across Europe — in Frankfurt the Dax slid 3.5 per cent and in Paris the Cac 40 lost 2.4 per cent.

Futures trading suggested that selling would resume on Wall Street on Wednesday with contracts for the S&P 500 dropping 3.7 per cent, the maximum allowed. The index had rebounded 6 per cent overnight in a volatile US trading session as the Trump administration and US central bank unveiled large support packages.

“The trajectories of Covid-19 are likely being contained in Europe but not in a complacent US and the economic damage is severe,” said Sebastien Galy, senior macro strategist at Nordea Asset Management.

Governments this week announced large-scale support measures in an attempt to cushion the blow from the coronavirus, which has caused an economic standstill in parts of Europe, Asia and the US.

Second wave of coronavirus cases hits Asia

Edward White in Wellington, Kathrin Hille in Taipei, Stefania Palma in Singapore and Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong report:

The number of coronavirus cases has spiked across Asia, fuelling concerns that hopes the region had contained the outbreak could be premature as a second wave of infections takes hold.

Officials in South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and parts of China and south-east Asia are now rushing through new measures in response to an uptick in new infections over recent days after weeks of declines.

Experts say the sudden increase in cases has revealed the limits of both China’s sweeping lockdown of citizens and of the massive public testing and social distancing campaigns rolled out across Asia in recent weeks.

But it also highlights growing anxieties about new cases coming from abroad, as the number of so-called imported infections has risen sharply as people arrive in the region in a bid to flee the escalating coronavirus outbreak in Europe.

“What many people hadn’t recognised is that it is only a temporary success, it is not a permanent success,” said Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong.

Read more on this story here

Wagamama owner and Marston’s seek leniency on rents and loans

Alice Hancock in London reports:

The Restaurant Group, owner of the Wagamama chain, and Marston’s, the pub operator, warned on Wednesday that they would be seeking covenant waivers from their lending banks and negotiating for rent reductions with landlords in order to stave off the effects of the coronavirus shutdown.

Both companies said that the outbreak of the virus and the subsequent dramatic slide in footfall across UK high streets and leisure parks had had a “significant’ impact on business.

TRG, which operates 650 restaurants and pubs in the UK, said that it expected an overall decline in sales of 45 per cent in the first half of the year, improving to a 5 per cent decline in the second half. It said that it forecasts a 92 per cent decline in sales in its concessions business, most of which are situated in travel hubs, in the second quarter.

Marston’s said that it was unable to quantify the impact of the government’s advice against consumers going out at this stage but that it was taking “an extremely prudent approach and being cautious in our management of the business during this period of unprecedented uncertainty”.

Marston’s has been working on a plan to lower debt by £200m by 2023. It said that it had made good progress towards this and it would be cutting its capital expenditure, overheads and stocking costs for the foreseeable future. It has an estate of 1,400 pubs.

TRG said it had modelled a scenario whereby it could retain £75m of cash liquidity in the business throughout the remainder of the year.

The announcements came the day after the UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak promised a £330bn package to support businesses including loans and business rates waivers.

Shares in TRG are down about 85 per cent this year, while Marston’s are down 83 per cent.

Turkey confirms first coronavirus death

Laura Pitel in Ankara reports:

Turkey announced its first coronavirus fatality overnight as the number of confirmed cases more than doubled to 98.

Fahrettin Koca, health minster, said an 89-year-old man had died after catching the disease from a person who had contacts with China.

Turkey reported its first confirmed case of coronavirus early last week. The number of instances has risen rapidly since then, with 51 new cases on Tuesday night.

Mr Koca said that most of those infected were recovering well, and urged the population to abide by strict measures aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, is due to address the nation on Wednesday after several days away from the public eye.

Zara owner to write off nearly €300m of inventory

Daniel Dombey in Madrid reports:

Inditex, the world’s biggest fashion retailer, is writing off €287m of its inventory because of the impact of the coronavirus, which has caused the group temporarily to close half its stores.

As of Tuesday, the company had closed 3,785 stores in 39 countries because of the virus. However, in China, all but 11 stores have reopened.

It said online sales, which last year represented 14 per cent of its total, were continuing and its supply chain was functioning normally.

In a trading update, Inditex added that store and online sales decreased between February 1 and March 16 by 4.9 per cent in local currencies compared with the same period last year, and that the decline accelerated this month: store and online sales decreased by 24.1 per cent between March 1 and March 16.

The inventory provision, which the company included in its 2019 results, announced on Wednesday, brought full-year profits down to €3.64bn from the level of €3.86bn they otherwise would have been. This meant profits grew 6 per cent year-on-year rather than the 12 per cent they would have expanded if the inventory charge had not been necessary.

Inditex said that “in view of the current uncertain situation due to the Covid-19 pandemic, [the company] considers that it is not the right moment to take a decision on the dividend” for last year, adding that the decision would be made by July.

Net sales for 2019 increased by 8 per cent to €28.29bn, with like-for-like sales up 6.5 per cent. Spain accounted for 15.7 per cent of total sales, and the rest of Europe, which the World Health Organization has dubbed the centre of the coronavirus crisis, a further 46 per cent.

The company held net cash of €8.06bn, up 20 per cent year-on-year.

“The solidity of the Group’s 2019 earnings and strong balance sheet puts us in a strong position for tackling the challenges emerging in 2020,” the company said, although it added: “It is too soon to quantify the future impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on our business operations.”

Top British virus expert self-isolates

A leading British coronavirus expert has self-isolated after developing coronavirus symptoms.

Epidemiology professor Neil Ferguson, head of the modelling programme at Imperial College’s MRC centre for global infectious disease analysis, said he had developed a dry cough yesterday and a high fever in the early hours of this morning and was now in self-isolation.

Prof Ferguson’s team warned this week that the government’s previous “herd immunity” strategy for dealing with the outbreak could have led to around 250,000 deaths. Its new plan of reduced social interaction is likely to reduce this number to “a few thousands or tens of thousands”, according to the Imperial College research.

https://twitter.com/neil_ferguson/status/1240171876695117824

Superdry withdraws annual guidance

Superdry has said it can no longer give formal trading guidance for the year as the spread of coronavirus forces it to close its stores and footfall dries up.

The clothing retailer’s most recent guidance had already suggested profits could be entirely wiped out this year. But the Covid-19 outbreak has forced it to reassess its prospects once again.

Superdry said 78 of its stores across Europe — the majority of its outlets on the continent — had been obliged to close due to government restrictions. Europe accounts for 40 per cent of sales.

While stores remain open in the UK, which accounts for half of all sales, footfall has tumbled by a quarter as people opt to stay at home. It has fallen by a similar amount in the US, which makes up the remaining 10 per cent of sales.

Julian Dunkerton, Superdry chief executive, said:

Along with everyone else, Superdry is experiencing major disruption to our business operations and recovery as we seek to protect our staff and customers from Covid-19. We are taking mitigating action wherever we can but the situation is very fluid and uncertain, and we are working to put in place additional financing to secure our recovery.

European and US markets set for new losses

European and US stocks were set to tumble on Wednesday, as aggressive economic interventions from Western government failed to reassure investors concerned over the impact of the coronavirus.

Futures trade pointed to losses of 4 per cent for London’s FTSE 100 and Frankfurt’s Dax when trading opens in less than an hour.

On Wall Street S&P 500 futures fell 3.7 per cent, following a sharp rally in the previous session as investors welcomed a sudden White House shift to more aggressive interventions against the outbreak, including a proposal to send a cheque to every American.

UK supermarkets seek to control panic buying

Jonathan Eley in London reports:

UK supermarkets are widening the range of items subject to per-customer limits and shrinking their opening hours to try and contain panic buying.

J Sainsbury, the UK’s second-largest chain, said that from Thursday it would close cafes and meat, fish and pizza counters to free up warehouse and transport capacity and focus staff efforts on grocery.

“We have enough food coming into the system, but are limiting sales so that it stays on shelves for longer and can be bought by a larger number of customers,” said chief executive Mike Coupe in a message to customers.

“We still have enough food for everyone – if we all just buy what we need for us and our families,” he added.

Rival Tesco has scaled back the opening hours of many of its largest stores, with formerly 24-hour hypermarkets closing at 10pm to allow for replenishment.

Wm Morrison, the smallest of the “big four”, said that it would extend in-store picking of groceries ordered online to another 100 stores, allowing it to expand its home delivery capacity.

It will set up a telephone ordering line for those who are less comfortable with using the internet, and introduce “essential boxes” that will be assembled at its distribution centres and delivered by courier.

According to one senior executive, last week was busier than Christmas as stores were repeatedly cleaned out of toilet paper, painkillers, dried goods such as rice and pasta, eggs and long-life milk.

France, Italy and Belgium expand short-selling ban

Philip Stafford in London reports:

France, Italy and Belgium have extended and widened their bans on short selling stocks, in an attempt to maintain stability on their markets rattled by the coronavirus crisis.

Overnight markets watchdogs in the three countries said they would widen one-day bans that had lasted throughout Tuesday but had covered only selected stocks.

The Autorité des Marchés Financiers (AMF), the French regulator, said its ban would cover all French stocks and last for 30 days, ending on April 16.

Italy’s Consob said its ban would cover all Italian stocks for the first time and last for three months. “These measures were made necessary by the strong turbulences triggered in the last days by the Covid-19 pandemic,” it said.

Belgium’s FMSA said its ban would cover all Belgian stocks and last until April 17. “The emergency situation linked to the pandemic may cause a general state of alert which seriously threatens market confidence,” it said.

The practice of short selling is where investors borrow shares and then sell them, hoping to buy them back later at a lower price before returning them and pocketing the difference. The practice has been blamed for exacerbating volatility during times of stress.

India’s restaurant association calls for government support

Benjamin Parkin reports from Mumbai

India’s restaurant association has asked its members to close until the end of the month but called on the government to help curtail the “astronomical losses” that will ensue.

The number of cases in India has risen to 130, prompting the government and private sector to ramp up efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus. That has prompted local authorities in some cities to already effectively require eateries and pubs to close.

The National Restaurant Association of India, which says it represents 500,000 restaurants, has asked its members to shut until March 31 or until no new cases are recorded for “a few days.”

“We find ourselves today in an unprecedented situation where we are compelled to make some difficult decisions which have massive financial implications on our businesses,” the NRAI said. “This decision to shut down is extremely hard on us.”

The industry body called on the government to help its members with measures like tax benefits, a moratorium on loan repayments and waiving interest.

Other measures to stem the virus’ spread in India include a travel ban on European and British visitors and a decision to suspend the beginning of upcoming cricket contest the Indian Premier League from later this month to mid-April.

Oman restricts entry to citizens and closes public spaces

Simeon Kerr reports from Dubai

Oman will enter almost full lockdown from noon local time on Wednesday as the sultanate imposes the most restrictive measures across the Gulf states to limit the spread of coronavirus.

A government committee announced it would restrict entry to the country only to Omanis and prevent nationals from leaving. It will also prohibit assembling in public areas, suspend gatherings and close all tourist sites, including beaches, parks and popular outdoor picnic areas. Mosques and other places of worship will close.

Shops and markets will also close, apart from those providing food, consumer items, clinics and pharmacies. Sports facilities and salons will be shut down. Restaurants and cafes will only be allowed to offer delivery services.

Oman has registered 33 coronavirus cases, 12 of whom have recovered.

The spread of the virus has been accelerating across the Gulf states, which have registered more than 1,100 cases with one death reported in Bahrain.

Dog which tested positive for coronavirus dies in Hong Kong

Primrose Riordan reports from Hong Kong

A dog which previously tested positive for Covid-19 died earlier this week, Hong Kong authorities said on Thursday.

The dog, which passed away on Monday, was being kept in isolation after its owner contracted the virus.

Swabs of the animal had tested “weak positive” for the virus, in the first suspected incident of a pet contracting the disease from a human.

But the dog’s owner said she does not want the local agriculture department managing the case to undertake a postmortem to confirm its cause of death.

Japan stocks climb on hopes of support measures

By Hudson Lockett and Leo Lewis

Stocks across Asia followed Wall Street higher on Wednesday as governments stepped up support measures to shield their economies from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. However, investors warned that the rebound was likely to be temporary as futures trading pointed to another gloomy session in New York.

Japan’s benchmark Topix index climbed 3 per cent after data showed the central bank bought a record ¥120bn ($1.1bn) of Japanese equities on Tuesday. Japanese markets were also boosted by reports that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe planned to form a panel to discuss further support measures to cushion the blow of the virus outbreak.

China’s CSI 300 index rose 1.6 per cent and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng edged up.

But bucking the trend, Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 slid 6.7 per cent as Scott Morrison, the country’s prime minister, declared a “human biosecurity emergency”, advised citizens to abandon overseas travel and warned that the crisis could disrupt daily life in the country for up to six months.

S&P 500 futures were down 3.7 per cent.

Taiwan closes its borders after wave of new infections

Kathrin Hille in Taipei

Taiwan is closing its borders to practically all foreigners, as the country battles to stem a wave of new infections imported mainly from Europe.

All foreign citizens except those with diplomatic, business or other documents giving them the right of residence in Taiwan would be barred from entering as of early Thursday, foreign minister Joseph Wu said. The restriction applies to travellers on any flights taking off as of midnight Taiwan time.

Health authorities said those people who are still entering Taiwan, including its own citizens and foreigners regardless where they are arriving from, will be put under 14 days of home quarantine and government-supervised health monitoring.

In addition, the Epidemic Command Centre demanded all Taiwanese who returned from overseas trips from March 5 to report with local government to be put under the same regime. This marks an escalation of efforts started earlier this week to chase and test Taiwanese citizens with recent travel abroad who had seen a doctor for flu-like symptoms since their return.

The stricter measures come as Taiwan’s infection numbers, one of the lowest worldwide with 77 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, has started creeping up: over the last two weeks, the country registered 31 imported infections, more than half in the last couple of days.

Taiwan already has more than 10,000 people under government-supervised health monitoring at home, according to the Epidemic Management Centre. The new steps would put up to another 16,000 people under that regime, the Interior Ministry said.

Separately, Taiwan and the US said they would step up co-operation on fighting the virus. The US would supply Taiwan with hazmat suits, while Taiwan would provide face masks to the US, Mr Wu said. The two countries are also to partner in research, development and production of rapid tests, vaccines and medicines, Mr Wu said in a joint statement with Brent Christensen, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s quasi-embassy in Taipei.

Samsung expects computer chip demand to grow in 2020

By Edward White

Samsung Electronics has struck an optimistic tone in its outlook for the memory chip market this year, bucking widespread expectations of a downturn because of the economic carnage caused by coronavirus.

The South Korean technology giant, which is the world’s biggest memory chip producer, said global computer chip demand will increase in 2020 despite “external uncertainties”.

“We expect global chip demand to grow on the back of the growth of artificial intelligence and automotive semiconductor industries, increased investment from data centre firms and expansion of 5G networks,” Kim Ki-nam, vice chair, said at a shareholder meeting in Suwon, near Seoul, on Wednesday.

Market watchers have almost universally downgraded their outlooks for economic growth in 2020 as the fallout from the pandemic continues to rattle investors, disrupt supply chains and weigh heavily on consumer demand.

Kenny Liew, an analyst at Fitch Solutions, said that while production and exports of semiconductors had showed signs of recovery before the Covid-19 outbreak, earlier momentum is now likely to be “derailed”.

“The contagion’s key risk is that it could impact both supply and demand for both consumer and enterprise tech goods, given that virus fears will result in lockdowns and more restrictions on the movement of goods.

“Tightening financial conditions and weaker global growth will also lead many companies to hold off on their enterprise IT investment plans pending more certainty on the business impact of the contagion to their operations,” he added.

Philippine Stock Exchange to resume trading

John Reed reports from Bangkok

The Philippine Stock Exchange is to resume trading, clearing, and settlement on Thursday, two days after beginning an indefinite closure because of a lockdown on Luzon island caused by the coronavirus.

Chief executive Ramon Monzon announced that the PSE would be reopening with shortened hours on March 19. However, its trading floor in greater Manila’s Bonifacio Global City district will remain closed by order of the Philippines’ Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases.

“Trading activities by all trading participants will have to be conducted remotely through offsite locations,” Mr Monzon said in a statement posted to the PSE website, dated March 17.

This came as bond and foreign exchange markets reopened on Wednesday, a day after the PSE became the first major market in the world to close in response to the pandemic. President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday declared a “state of calamity in the Philippines”, which has confirmed 187 cases of COVID-19 leading to 14 deaths.

US auto plants to remain open after companies and unions reach deal

Claire Bushey reports from Chicago

US auto plants will remain open with some restrictions after union officials and carmakers reached a deal on Tuesday to strengthen coronavirus protections for workers.

Workers at the North American plants of Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler America will continue to churn out cars and trucks except for a “rotating partial shutdown of facilities”, the union said.

The companies agreed to clean plants and equipment between shifts, as well as extended periods between shifts and “extensive plans to avoid member contact”.

The UAW initially sought a two-week closure for US factories. Ford said that starting on Thursday it plans to close all its plants in Europe, as the continent becomes the centre of the outbreak. The company has already told its white-collar workforce to work from home.

The agreement was reached the same day Ford temporarily shut its assembly plant in Chicago because of a parts shortage from a supplier, marking the first time the company had to halt production in North America due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Chicago assembly plant employs approximately 5,800 workers making the Ford Explorer and Lincoln Aviator. Workers have said on social media that they worry about their health coming to work. As one commented on Facebook: “Hard to do social distancing with this job.”

South Korean cases creep higher as new clusters emerge

By Edward White

The number of new coronavirus cases in South Korea crept higher again as the discovery of new clusters continue to dent optimism over the country’s success in containing the outbreak.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control reported 93 additional confirmed cases on Wednesday, up from 84 reported a day earlier and 74 on Monday. The new cases took the total infection caseload to 8,413.

While the number of new infections in South Korea has broadly declined for more than two weeks, and new cases continue to be outpaced by the number of patients who are cured each day, reports of new clusters at communal areas including churches and rest homes have worried officials over recent days.

On Wednesday, state media reported that as many as 60 patients at a nursing home in Daegu have become infected. The city, South Korea’s fourth-largest, has been at the centre of the country’s outbreak since late February but had seen a decrease in new cases over the past two weeks.

Goldman Sachs tells staff in Europe and Americas to work from home

Laura Noonan reports from New York

Goldman Sachs has asked its staff in Europe and the Americas to work from home starting on Wednesday “until further notice” if their roles allow it, as the bank escalated its response to the coronavirus.

Goldman chief executive David Solomon and his two most senior lieutenants announced the decision in a memo to staff on Tuesday and said it had been taken “given new restrictions implemented by governments in the Americas and EMEA”.

“We encourage most of our people to work from home,” the trio said. “In all regions, for colleagues who need to be in the office due to the nature of their roles, we will adhere to a comprehensive set of precautionary and social distancing measures to help protect your health and wellbeing.”

The news follows JPMorgan Chase’s decision earlier in the week to implement work from home practices across its global workforce where their roles allow it.

Goldman has had four employees test positive for coronavirus in London, Salt Lake City and Sydney. The bank, which employs around 36,000, also reported a “suspected” case involving a third party healthcare worker at its New York headquarters.

Vietnam halts visa issuance to foreigners

John Reed reports from Bangkok

Vietnam has halted the issuance of visas to foreigners for 30 days because of the coronavirus pandemic. The south-east Asian country also imposed a mandatory quarantine requirement in “concentrated facilities” for travellers arriving from the US, Europe, and countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“Those who are not subject to concentrated quarantine must be self-quarantined & put under medical monitoring at their house, enterprises, accommodations or in groups,” government spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said in a tweet outlining the measures on Tuesday evening.

Citizens of countries that do not require Vietnamese visas, and people deemed “experts, business managers or highly skilled workers” will only be allowed to enter the country if they submit paperwork showing they are free of Covid-19, according to a government communique.

The blanket measures, which took effect at midnight, come after a recent spate of coronavirus infections in Vietnam were traced back to people arriving from overseas.

Separately, Vietnam, which holds the rotating chairmanship of Asean, said it was consulting fellow members in the regional grouping about postponing a planned summit in early April because of what Ms Hang said on Twitter were “complicated developments of #COVID19 in the region & the world”.

Chinese factories face components shortage, says business association

Kathrin Hille reports from Taipei

Even as factories in China are gradually returning to work, a significant portion of them expect to face component and material shortages caused by disruptions due to the coronavirus epidemic for months to come, according to a major western business association.

The American Chamber of Commerce in South China said that all 237 foreign and Chinese companies it surveyed between March 9 and March 14 were suffering disruptions to their business, and one-third of them were facing such shortages.

The figures suggest that although China said it had turned the corner on the epidemic, its economy will keep feeling the pain.

On Monday, the National Bureau of Statistics said industrial output fell by 13.5 per cent in the first two months of this year and fixed asset investment plummeted by 24.5 per cent, the worst such official data China has ever reported.

According to the AmCham survey, 15 per cent of those affected have already run out of certain supplies. It indicated that 80 per cent expect the shortages to last three months, and another 11 per cent foresee longer than that.

“[The] world’s supply chain shows signs of being overstretched,” said Amcham South China President Harley Seyedin, urging the US and China to repair their badly strained trade relationship.

“As it is stated in our White Paper research, it will take $2tn-$3tn to replace the current supply chain,” Mr Heyedin said in a message sent with the survey results.

“It will require a co-ordinated international series of actions to minimise the impact of disruption in the supply chain. Today’s events prove we need each other as no one country can do it alone.”

Transport and logistics disruptions were the biggest factors blamed by the surveyed companies for the shortages of components, supplies or material, followed by labour shortages.

Forty-eight per cent of respondents, three-quarters of which are in manufacturing, said their ability to manufacture was affected moderately or severely by the disruptions.

Credit Suisse cuts Mexico GDP forecast over coronavirus

Jude Webber reports from Mexico City

Credit Suisse has slashed its GDP forecast for Mexico, telling clients to expect a 4 per cent contraction compared with its previous forecast of 0.7 per cent growth.

In a note to clients, the bank said Mexico and Chile would be worst hit in Latin America from the global coronavirus crisis because they were the most open economies and heavily reliant on the US and China, respectively.

Credit Suisse said it had decided to lower its 2020 real GDP growth forecast for Mexico on expectations of falling industrial and services output.

The bank said it had also factored in production declines by state oil company Pemex, starting in the second quarter, following the crash in oil prices.

It added that it expected the central bank to cut its overnight rate “soon”.

“Finally, on the fiscal front, we think that the government will end up lowering modestly the primary surplus target (0.7 per cent of GDP for 2020) in order to accommodate additional spending, particularly to address social needs arising from the Covid-19 shock,” the bank said.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has summoned his cabinet to a meeting. The Treasury’s official 2020 forecast for growth remains at 2 per cent.

Overall, Credit Suisse forecast a contraction of 1.5 per cent for Latin America in 2020, the largest contraction since 2009 when the region contracted 2 per cent.

It is now forecasting no growth for Brazil, a 2.6 per cent contraction for Argentina, 1.3 per cent growth for Colombia, a 1.5 per cent contraction for Chile, a 2.3 per cent contraction for Ecuador, growth of 1 per cent for Peru and a 12.5 per cent contraction for Venezuela.

Australia announces $429m package for domestic airline industry

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

The Australian government unveiled a A$715m ($429m) rescue package for the domestic airline industry on Wednesday in a bid to help carriers cope with a slump in demand due to the coronavirus crisis.

The package involves the refunding and ongoing waiving of government charges on the industry, including aviation fuel excise, air services charges on domestic airline operations and domestic and regional aviation security charges.

The total cost of the measures is estimated to be A$715 million, with an upfront estimated benefit of A$159 million to airlines for reimbursement of applicable charges paid by domestic airlines since February 1.

Qantas Airways, Virgin Australia and several regional carriers are expected to benefit from the relief package, which analysts expect is only the first tranche of state support measures for the industry.

“Our airlines run on tight budgets at the best of times and these past few weeks have been particularly tough,” said Michael McCormack, Australian deputy prime minister.

“Providing this assistance not only helps our airlines but also the entire aviation industry, regional Australians in particular and other industries such as tourism and trade, which depend on aviation.”

On Wednesday, Virgin Australia said it was grounding its international fleet and reducing domestic capacity by 50 per cent until June 14. Qantas has already slashed international capacity by 90 per cent and the government has advised all Australians not to travel overseas.

Qantas and Virgin have said they have enough cash reserves to survive the crisis, although Virgin has more than A$5bn net debt on its balance sheet and had its credit rating slashed to BBB- from BBB+ by S&P on Monday.

Google criticised for running coronavirus-related advertising

Richard Waters reports from San Francisco

Google came under fire from two Democratic senators in the US on Tuesday for continuing to run adverts for face masks and hand sanitiser, contrary to its own policies and a promise to crack down on coronavirus-related advertising.

In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, Mark Warner and Richard Blumenthal accused the company of carrying adverts that “exploit fear for profit”, while also adding to shortages of “essential health care products at a time of critical need.”

The search company has a rule against adverts that exploit “sensitive events”, such as “a natural disaster, conflict, death, or other tragic event.” It also said a week ago that it would explicitly block adverts for face masks in the US, where there have been shortages. The US Surgeon General has called on the public to stop buying masks to ensure more are available for medical workers.

The senators said that their staff had been “consistently served dozens of ads” while browsing web pages containing information about Covid-19. Targeting information published by Google showed that the ads had been deliberately directed at people looking for information about the virus, they added.

Google did not explain the lapses, but said: “Since January, we have blocked millions of ads that attempted to capitalise on coronavirus and have implemented a temporary ban on all medical face mask ads. We continue to take action to protect users and prevent these ads from serving.”

Ford closes Chicago plant over parts shortage

Claire Bushey reports from Chicago

Ford temporarily shut its assembly plant in Chicago because of a parts shortage from a supplier, marking the first time the company has had to halt production in North America due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ford said that starting on Thursday it plans to close all its plants in Europe, as the continent becomes the centre of the outbreak. The company has already told its white-collar workforce to work from home.

The Chicago assembly plant employs approximately 5,800 workers making the Ford Explorer and Lincoln Aviator. Workers have said on social media that they worry about their health coming to work. As one commented on Facebook: “Hard to do social distancing with this job.”

UAW President Rory Gamble and other union leaders are to meet top executives at Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler America to discuss how to keep production workers safe as the virus continues to spread. The union has called for plants to shut down for two weeks, a call it says the automakers have resisted. A taskforce was formed on Sunday to address workers’ concerns.

“If the UAW leadership on the task force … are not satisfied that our members will be protected, we will take this conversation to the next level,” Mr Gamble said.

Asia-Pacific stocks mixed after rebound on Wall Street

Asia-Pacific stocks were mixed on Wednesday after global stocks rebounded in the previous session following a series of government support packages to shield economies from the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 slid 3.3 per cent, while the Topix in Japan was up 1.9 per cent and the Kospi in South Korea gained 0.7 per cent.

Overnight on Wall Street, the S&P 500 recovered from Monday’s sell-off to end up 6 per cent following a volatile session. European stocks also rebounded with the UK’s FTSE 100 closing 3 per cent higher. The European composite Stoxx 600 gained 2 per cent, having lost more than a third of its value in less than a month.

S&P 500 futures pointed to a 2.5 per cent fall when markets reopen on Wednesday.

The US Federal Reserve said it would enter the market for short-term company debt, known as commercial paper, to provide an extra $500bn to shore up the overnight lending market. The Trump administration said it was considering a support package worth as much as $1.2tn.

Britain unveiled a £330bn package of emergency loan guarantees to business and £20bn of fiscal support and France announced a €45bn rescue package.

Australia advises against overseas travel

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

Australia has declared a human biosecurity emergency, advised all Australians from travelling overseas and announced a ban on indoor gatherings of more than 100 people to try and slow the spread of the coronavirus.

But Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, has said schools will stay open for the foreseeable future on the basis of health advice, despite concerns expressed by some doctors, parents and educators that they could become conduits to spread the virus.

“Right now, schools should remain open. That is the clear and crystal health advice,” Mr Morrison told reporters on Wednesday. “Any measure you put in place, you must be prepared to put in place for at least six months. It could be longer.”

Mr Morrison said Australia was following the model in place in Singapore, which has kept schools open but managed to keep the spread of the virus under control.

He warned the virus is a once-in-100-year type event and life is going to change for a period of at least six months but said Australians would be able to rise to the challenge.

Canberra has advised all Australians not to travel overseas and introduced tough 14-day self-isolation restrictions on all inbound passengers.

“The travel advice to every Australian is ‘do not travel abroad’. Do not go overseas. That is very clear that instruction,” said Mr Morrison. “This is an indefinite ban.”

Mr Morrison strongly criticised people engaging in panic buying in supermarkets. “Stop doing it. It’s ridiculous! It’s un-Australian, and it must stop,” he said.

Coronavirus latest: UK advises against non-essential travel to US


China to quarantine international travellers

Don Weinland reports:

International passengers landing in Beijing will be sent to quarantine centres for 14 days starting on Monday, in the strongest measures taken by China to prevent a resurgence in coronavirus cases from inbound travellers.

All asymptomatic travellers entering the capital from abroad would be sent to the centres at their own expense, a Beijing official said at a press conference. In some exceptional circumstances, incoming passengers would be allowed to quarantine at home.

Cases of coronavirus among incoming international travellers outnumbered domestic cases for the first time in China on Friday, as Europe and the US report soaring new case numbers and official figures plummet in China.

The Chinese government in recent days has sought to reframe the pandemic as a global crisis, not one focused on or originating in China. A senior Chinese diplomat even suggested last week that the virus may have been planted in the country by the US military.

Hong Kong extends quarantine on arrivals

Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong reports:

Hong Kong has announced a compulsory home quarantine to people arriving from Hong Kong who have been to the Ireland, the UK, the US and Egypt in the past 14 days. The quarantine will apply from Thursday.

Authorities said more than half of the 46 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the past 14 days were imported. Seven other cases involve patients visiting places outside Hong Kong during part of the incubation period, said the Centre for Health Protection.

The territory earlier introduced quarantine measures to people arriving from Korea, Iran, Hokkaido in Japan and the Schengen Area in Europe.

Myanmar and Vietnam to quarantine travellers from affected countries

John Reed in Bangkok reports:

Myanmar and Vietnam on Sunday became the latest countries to impose strict quarantine requirements on travellers from countries with high numbers of reported coronavirus cases.

Myanmar’s ministry of health and sport announced that visitors from South Korea, China, Italy, Iran, France, Spain, and Germany. would face either a mandatory 14-day quarantine or return home if they arrived in Myanmar unannounced.

Visitors with a history of travel to the US over the past 14 days will be subject to “surveillance”, according to the ministry.

Separately, Vietnam’s health ministry on Sunday said that all passengers arriving from or through China, South Korea, the UK, and Schengen countries would face compulsory quarantine and testing for coronavirus, Reuters reported.

Vietnam has reported 53 coronavirus cases to date. Myanmar has to date reported no cases of Covid-19, but doubts have been voiced about the veracity of this claim in a country that shares a long border with China.

In a report on a briefing by government spokesman Zaw Htay on Friday, the government-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported: “Myanmar does not share the customs of greeting with handshakes, hugs or kisses that [western] countries have.”

The paper went on to say:

It also does not have a high number of credit card users compared to other nations, as the person handling credit cards at the counter would be in close contact with hundreds of different people in a day.

Global recession already here, say top economists

Chris Giles in London, Brendan Greeley in Washington and Martin Arnold in Frankfurt report:

The world economy has fallen into recession, suffering from a “wicked cocktail” of coronavirus and the dramatic action to limit its spread, according to four former IMF chief economists.

As the virus has spread from China to the rest of the world, economists no longer feel they have to wait for data to confirm the world is in recession, even though official forecasts remain more optimistic.

The former top officials agreed that addressing the public health needs was the first priority, but said that with a sharp downturn likely, governments should be preparing to spend significant sums to protect businesses and households.

Serving policymakers and officials have so far sought to contain alarm over the economic consequences of the coronavirus. Mark Carney, Bank of England governor, has declined to predict a UK recession while Christine Lagarde, European Central Bank president, said only that it would be a “major shock”.

Read more on this story here

Nike to close stores in US, Canada and Europe

Nike is to close stores in countries around the world for almost two weeks from Monday in a bid to stem the spread of coronavirus. The closure will include shops in the US, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

The US sportswear company said:

The well-being of our teammates and consumers is our top priority so we have decided to close our stores in multiple countries around the world including in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand to limit the spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19). These closures will go into effect from Monday, March 16 through Friday, March 27.

Nike added that its stores in South Korea, Japan and most of China remained open.

Swiss cases surge past 2,000

Sam Jones in Zurich reports:

Swiss authorities have reported a surge in the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus overnight, with more than 2,200 now infected in the wealthy alpine country.

The Federal Office of Public Health said on Sunday afternoon it had confirmed 841 additional cases — a leap of more than 60 per cent in 24 hours.

On Saturday, Switzerland had 1,359 cases. According to the FOPH, 14 have so far died of the disease.

So far Bern has taken a relatively gradualist approach to locking down public life.

The government moved on Friday to ban all gatherings of more than 50 people, effectively closing many restaurants, bars, and cafe, but leaving it up to businesses to decide exactly how to respond.

In Zürich, the country’s largest city and commercial centre, many restaurants, bars and cafes remained open on Saturday evening.

Schools across the country have also been shut down. The border with Italy, whose neighbouring Lombardy region remains the worst-hit area in Europe by the pandemic, is now completely closed to all but Swiss citizens returning home.

Switzerland’s highly-federalised political structure means that more restrictive measures have been left up to individual cantons to enforce.

The Italian-speaking southerly canton of Ticino, only a few dozen kilometres from Milan, has gone into a full-lockdown as of today, with restaurants, bars, shops and businesses ordered to close from midnight Saturday onwards.

Malaysia reports biggest daily jump in cases

Stefania Palma in Singapore reports:

Malaysia has reported 190 new confirmed cases, the largest daily jump yet, that brings the country’s total to 428.

Most new patients are linked to a cluster involving a mass religious gathering at Kuala Lumpur’s Sri Petaling mosque.

The health ministry on Friday said about 16,000 people attended the event, 14,500 of which were Malaysians and the remaining being foreign nationals. Noor Hisham Abdullah, health director general at the ministry, has described the screening of the participants as a “mammoth and daunting task”.

So far, 42 cases have fully recovered and have been discharged from Malaysian hospitals.

France to cut train travel and airport use

Victor Mallet in Paris reports

France will progressively cut back long-distance travel to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the government announced on Sunday, adding to earlier moves to close cafés, restaurants and non-food shops.

Elisabeth Borne, ecological transition minister responsible for transport, announced the latest measures at a news conference in Paris. Long-distance train movements will be gradually cut to half their normal level, and airport use reduced with the closure of certain terminals, although borders and airports remain open.

“The idea is to limit trips as far as possible,” she said. “Everyone will be able to return home there will be no sudden transport stoppage.”

Meanwhile, Bruno Le Maire, finance minister, urged the French not to go on a panic-buying spree, insisting there were no food shortages in the country and that 90-95 per cent of the usual product lines were available in supermarkets.

“There are no shortages and there will be no shortages if everyone behaves responsibly,” he said. “Continue to do your food shopping as before.”

Denmark to cover three-quarters of sacked employees’ salaries

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic Correspondent, reports

Denmark’s government will cover three-quarters of employees’ salaries who would otherwise have been fired as part of a package to protect Danish businesses and citizens from the worst economic effects of the coronavirus.

Mette Frederiksen, the centre-left prime minister, said on Sunday that the government would cover up to DKr23,000 ($3,400) per employee per month with companies paying the other 25 per cent.

For hourly workers — those not on a fixed salary — the government will cover 90 per cent of their wages up to DKr26,000 a month.

“The echo of what we do now will be heard in the future,” said Ms Frederiksen. “It is now that we build a path so that companies and employees can best get through the crisis.”

The measures, agreed between the government, employers and trades union, will apply to all private Danish companies hard hit by coronavirus who are planning to fire at least 30 per cent of their workers or more than 50 employees. The temporary compensation scheme will be backdated to March 9 and apply until June 9. To receive the money, employees will have to give up five vacation days.

“It is an investment that will be very expensive. But the alternative would be that even more would be made unemployed at a time when the opposite is needed,” said finance minister Nicolai Wammen.

Afghanistan’s open borders raise fears of contagion

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi reports:

President Ashraf Ghani expressed deep concern about Afghanistan’s vulnerability to coronavirus, particularly from neighbour Iran, which is suffering from one of the biggest outbreaks of the disease.

Afghanistan has confirmed 16 coronavirus cases, all linked to Iran. But authorities have struggled to shut down the flow of traffic across the border.

Mr Ghani said in an emergency video conference of South Asian leaders to discuss the coronavirus crisis:

We are in unknown territory and our vulnerability comes from our openness. We have open borders and the flow cannot be stopped … Iran has become the central node for preventing the spread of the disease to the rest of South Asia.

Afghanistan has ordered its schools and communal prayers to stop in a bid to control the spread of the disease. But he said Kabul was now wrestling with questions of “how do we keep women, children and youth occupied”.

Maldives faces foreign exchange crisis as virus hits tourism

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi reports:

The Maldives has warned that it faces an imminent foreign exchange crisis – and a huge shortfall in government revenues – as tourist arrivals plummet due to the global coronavirus crisis.

Tourism accounts for a quarter of the gross domestic product of the Maldives, and China and Italy – the two countries worst hit by the virus – are the archipelago’s first and third largest source of foreign tourists.

In a video conference with other South Asian leaders, Ibrahim Solih, president of the Maldives, said that tourist arrivals in February had fallen 14.2 percent year-on-year, and that in the first weeks of March, the decline was 22 percent.

“If the current trend continues, we will have a 35 percent drop [in tourism revenues] this year,” Mr Solih said. “Maldives is now facing a serious shortfall in foreign current earnings. If the foreign currency shortfall continues, it will have a detrimental impact on the Maldives, which has an extremely high dependency on imports.”

Mr Solih said that the foreign exchange crisis was also “seriously hindering the government’s ability to respond appropriately to the crisis.”

The Maldives, with a population of around 436,000 people, currently has 13 confirmed coronavirus cases.

UK urges citizens to leave Argentina as it suspends European flights

Sarah Provan in London reports:

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has urged non-resident British nationals in Argentina to leave the country since the last direct flight to the UK is due to depart on Monday.

President Alberto Fernández on March 12 announced a 30-day suspension of all international flights from Europe, including the UK, US, China, Japan, South Korea and Iran, to Argentina.

The Argentine government has prohibited non-resident foreigners who have transited through those countries within the past 14 days to come into Argentina. For those already in Argentina who have travelled from those countries they too face a mandatory 14-day self-isolation period so as to limit the spread of the virus. Argentina has confirmed 31 cases.

This is what the FCO’s update from late Saturday says on its website:

The FCO strongly encourage non-resident British nationals in Argentina to consider leaving to avoid difficulties they will face if flights out of the country and the region are further restricted and they are unable to get home.


UK Foreign Office advises against travel to US

Laura Hughes in London reports:

The Foreign Office said it was advising against all but essential travel to America after US President Donald Trump extended a ban on travel between the US and European countries to include the UK and Ireland.

An FCO spokesperson said: “We are advising against all but essential travel to the USA following the US government announcement imposing restrictions on travel from the UK (and Ireland) effective from midnight on Monday 16 March EST / 0400 on Tuesday 17 March GMT.”   

Indian states order shutdowns as cases increase

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi reports:

India has said that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country has jumped to 107, up from around 84 on Saturday, with two fatalities.

The cases – still nearly all in people who had a history of travel to affected areas or their immediate close contacts – are scattered across the country, with the western state of Maharashtra and the southern state of Kerala recording the largest numbers.

Of the total cases, 17 are foreigners, including a group of 16 Italian tourists that had been on holiday in Rajasthan.

Many Indian states, including Gujarat, Delhi, Bihar and Telangana, have ordered shutdowns of schools, colleges, shopping malls, cinemas and other public places, to try to curb the spread.

Karnataka, where Bangalore – the Silicon Valley of India – is located, has ordered the most sweeping closures in India, with all pubs, restaurants and other commercial establishments also ordered to close.

India has closed its borders to the entry of most foreigners, save for diplomats, UN officials, and some residents, and is appealing to its citizens to avoid all international travel.

Trump tests negative

Donald Trump’s doctor on Saturday announced that the US president had tested negative for coronavirus. The graphic shows those people in Mr Trump’s circle who have come into contact with Covid-19.
To read more on this story click here.

Ryanair to slash flights to Spain as country goes into lockdown

Tanya Powley, transport correspondent, reports:

Ryanair will be “severely” reducing the number of flights it operates across its group to and from Spain, the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands following the Spanish government’s decision to “lock down” the country to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The low-cost airline said its group of airlines, including Buzz and Lauda, will be cutting flights from midnight on Sunday until midnight on March 19. It comes just a day after Ryanair cancelled all flights to and from Poland after a similar move by the government there.

Airlines around the world are scrambling to shore up their businesses following a sharp rise in cancellations and travel bans. The chairman of Virgin Group is sending a letter to the UK government urging it to provide up to £7.5bn of emergency state support to rescue the UK aviation industry which has been decimated by the coronavirus impact.

Other short-haul airlines such as easyJet are also currently working through the process of cancelling flights to Spain and other countries which have implemented a country lock down.

Ryanair said it would contact all affected customers by email to advise them of their options.

Norway to expel foreigners without residence permits

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic correspondent reports:

Norway is preparing to expel foreigners without a residence permit due to the coronavirus crisis.

Norway’s centre-right government held an emergency cabinet meeting after which it said it had adopted measures to expel foreigners without residence permits without giving further details.

Foreign diplomats were left scrambling to understand the implications of the move, which came after Norway closed its borders to foreigners on Saturday.

“We are working to establish what this means in practice,” Richard Wood, the UK’s ambassador to Norway, wrote on Twitter.

Israel closes holy sites

Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv reports:

The Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s old city have been shuttered indefinitely to slow the rate of infections in Israel, say Islamic religious authorities.

The mosque, the third holiest religious site in Islam after Mecca and Medina, attracts thousands of worshippers daily, but numbers had been dropping in recent weeks over fears of contagion. Prayers at the eighth century mosque will be held in an open courtyard between the neighbouring buildings, an official told Reuters.

Jerusalem is home to holy sites for Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and religious authorities have responded to the government’s calls for social distancing by asking worshippers and pilgrims to avoid large congregations.

Israel is putting all overseas visitors and returning Israelis into a 14-day isolation, effectively shutting off the country from much of the world, as airlines have cancelled flights en masse and the borders with Egypt and Jordan have been sealed.

Czech government prepares to put country into lockdown

James Shotter in Warsaw reports:

Czech prime minister Andre Babis said on Sunday that the government was likely to put the whole country in quarantine, in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus.

In an interview with a Czech TV station, Mr Babis said that he would be putting forward the measure at a cabinet meeting later today, and he expected the proposal to be accepted.

The Czech Republic has already taken a number of far-reaching steps in its efforts to combat the virus, including closing the country’s borders, forcing non-essential shops too close, and banning public gatherings of more than 30 people.

The health ministry said on Sunday morning that 214 cases of the novel virus had now been confirmed, up from 189 on Saturday evening.

Rouhani rules out restrictions on Iran businesses

Monavar Khalaj in Tehran reports:

President Hassan Rouhani has assured Iranians that the country has a sufficient supply of consumer goods and has ruled out any businesses being subjected to restrictions in a bid to help curtail the spread of coronavirus.

The president said:

The nation will be assured that their required commodities including those for hygienic and medical purposes or consumer or daily goods are being supplied every day. There is enough reserves, the required purchases have been done and ports are full of commodities.

A day after rumours spread that some cities such as the capital Tehran would be quarantined, Mr Rouhani stressed that economic activities must go on normally in the lead up to the Nowruz new year holidays, which start on March 21. “There will not be such a thing neither now nor during Nowruz holidays,” he said.

Tehran mayor Pirouz Hanachi said that the capital could not be quarantined because supply of basic needs and compensation for the economic losses would not be possible in the face of US sanctions.

Iran said 724 people have so far died from the illness, up from 611 a day before while 13,938 have tested positive since the coronavirus hit the country on February 19.

Australian stock exchange ASX tells employees to work remotely

Philip Stafford in London reports:

ASX, the Australian stock exchange, has told most of its employees to work remotely after one of them at its central Sydney site tested positive for Covid-19 on Saturday.

Employees at its main Bridge Street office, its data centre which houses the servers for trading, back-up sites, interstate and overseas offices have been told to work from home until further notice, the exchange said in as statement on Sunday morning.

It has made exceptions only for a core group of employees who will remain on ASX sites to manage daily market operations such as technology and surveillance.

The employee has mild symptoms of Covid-19 and is not required to be hospitalised, the ASX said. It added that the employee had had close contact with a further 20 co-workers and it has since undertaken a deep clean of the Bridge Street office.

The statement said:

Our employees have the capacity to work remotely, which is a normal and regular part of ASX’s business continuity plan and testing activity. Many already work flexibly and/or remotely from our various sites.

Greece orders hotel shutdown

Kerin Hope in Athens reports:

Greece has ordered resort hotels to stay shut until April 30, delaying the start of the tourist season as it ramps up measures to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Hotels will lose a significant chunk of annual revenue, as most resorts on the mainland and islands are heavily booked over Easter.

Yiannis Retsos, president of SETE, the leading Greek association of hoteliers and tour operators, said:

This is a necessary and proper action. We need to remain ready for brave decisions when it comes to protecting public health … to see the bigger picture and methodically prepare for the day after.

City hotels will not be affected by the shut-down, the economy ministry said.

The government said all organised beaches would be closed after thousands of Athenians people crowded the coastline on a warm spring day, ignoring official advice on social distancing.

Goldman to allow Apple Card customers skip March payments

Laura Noonan, in Dublin reports:

Goldman Sachs’ Apple Card has promised to allow customers to skip their March payments if they are adversely affected by the coronavirus, in the latest example of banks acting to ease the financial stress of the pandemic.

An email sent to Apple Card customers on Saturday night said “the rapidly-evolving Covid-19 situation poses unique challenges for everyone and some customers may have difficulty making their monthly payments.”

It asked affected customers to enroll in a Customer Assistance Program to skip their March payment “without incurring interest charges”. Apple Card is only in the US market.

Goldman’s Marcus consumer lending platform is also offering affected customers a one-month interest free deferment, a person familiar with the situation told the FT.

Global case numbers push towards 160,000

As governments across the world implement increasingly severe measures to stem the spread of coronavirus, cases continue to rise.

Steve Bernard, senior data visualisation journalist, has mapped the latest figures.

French local elections go ahead despite lockdown

Victor Mallet in Paris reports:

French citizens emerged from a coronavirus lockdown only hours after it was imposed to cast their ballots in municipal elections, with President Emmanuel Macron deciding to go ahead with the voting “to ensure the continuity of our democratic life”.

On Saturday night, the government dramatically reinforced control measures, ordering the closure of all cafés, restaurants, non-essential shops and places of entertainment to try to slow the spread of Covid-19. Schools will open only for the children of health workers.

Edouard Philippe, prime minister, urged everyone to stay at home except for food shopping and exercise, and told employers to organise teleworking where possible, although public transport will continue to operate and the borders remain open.

According to the health ministry, 91 people in France have died from the virus.
People in central Paris trickled into voting stations in the morning, with analysts predicting that turnout — which had already fallen over the years to below 64 per cent in the last local elections in 2014 — was likely to be limited by fears of catching the disease.

Norway set to clamp down on use of mountain cabins

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic Correspondent reports

Norway’s local authorities will soon be able to ban people from using their much-loved mountain cabins in a move that has brought home the scale of the coronavirus pandemic in the rich Scandinavian country.

Norwegians had decamped en masse to their remote cabins, popular for cross-country skiing, after the nation’s schools and kindergartens closed on Thursday and Friday, leading to several municipalities warning of their health systems and other public services being overwhelmed in case of local outbreaks.

Hemsedal, a small community of 2,500 people known for its ski trails, warned on Friday that it was expecting 25,000 people to come to cabins this weekend.

Prime minister Erna Solberg urged people to return home from the cabins on Saturday and warned that civil defence forces could be used if people refused to comply.

Norway’s government will now make new rules that allow local authorities to ban people from a different municipality from staying in their cabins, and will check on Sunday evening if people are complying, before then bringing in a potential ban.

Norway’s crisis response is under scrutiny after the entire leadership of its health authorities was put in quarantine after one of its top managers was exempted from self-isolating on returning from Spain, only to develop coronavirus.

Egypt sets aside $6.4bn to combat virus

Heba Saleh in Cairo reports:

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president has announced the allocation of $6.4bn to fund a “comprehensive plan” to combat the new coronavirus. Details have not been announced on how the money will be spent.

Schools and universities have been ordered closed for two weeks starting today in an effort to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus as cases mount in the country to 109.

Mostapha Madbouli, the prime minister, said on Saturday the suspension of classes was necessary because there were 22m students in schools and 3m in universities accounting for a quarter of all Egyptians. He said all schools and universities will be sanitized during the closure of studies and he urged parents to “do all that is necessary to protect their children from going out on the street.”

The education minister said on Saturday that seven students at different schools had tested positive for the virus.

Some 45 Coronavirus cases were found among workers and tourists on a Nile cruise boat last week. Other visitors from the US, France and Greece tested positive after their return to their countries. So far there have been only two deaths in Egypt.

Austria puts civil defence forces on standby amid lockdown

Sam Jones in Zurich reports:

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced further stringent measures to lockdown public life and put civil defence forces on standby as the country prepares for an explosion of coronavirus cases.

Speaking to the Austrian parliament, Mr Kurz said all gatherings of more than five people were now prohibited. Public places such as playgrounds, sports venues and cinemas will close alongside restaurants, bars and cafes, starting on Monday.

The government has also instructed all non-essential shops to shut indefinitely, such as those selling clothes, cosmetics, books and furniture.

To support the measures, the chancellor ordered the drafting of the civil militia. Austrians who passed through obligatory national service within the past five years are now on standby to be called up. Leave for 25,000 police officers has also been cancelled.

Austria will also now suspend all flights to the UK, Ukraine and Russia.

“Austria, and everyone Austrian, now has to isolate themselves,” Mr Kurz said, reiterating the government’s public information campaign unveiled on Saturday to fight the virus.

Citizens should only leave home for one of three urgent reasons, the government has declared: to work, in circumstances where a job is impossible to do from home or postpone, to buy urgent supplies, or to help the more needy.

Pope cancels public Easter service

Miles Johnson in Rome reports:

Pope Francis will not hold a public Easter service this year due to Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, cancelling a public gathering in Rome that typically draws crowds of tens of thousands of the Catholic faithful.

The move to not hold a public events to mark the most important day in the Catholic calendar comes as the Vatican has said that all Papal events during the outbreak will be streamed online.

Last week a move to close all of the churches in Rome was reversed after Pope Francis warned that “drastic measures aren’t always good”.

Boris Johnson set to ramp up UK response to coronavirus

George Parker and Laura Hughes in London report:

Boris Johnson on Sunday dramatically accelerated and stepped up Britain’s response to coronavirus, after 48 hours in which it became obvious that his measured approach to the crisis was losing public, political and scientific support.

Mr Johnson’s allies insist that new measures such as banning mass gatherings, isolating the elderly or quarantining whole families were being brought forward because the epidemic was developing more quickly than expected. 

But the prime minister was also facing an increasingly stark political calculation: if Britain’s death rate started to grow faster than other EU countries like France, Ireland or Belgium – now on lockdown – he would likely get the blame. 

The first signs of unease in Number 10 came on Friday night when journalists were briefed that mass gatherings would be banned, just 24 hours after Mr Johnson and his advisers insisted such a move would be of little merit. 

Indeed Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, had announced on Thursday that the first set of measures to be implemented in Britain’s “delay” strategy were “actually rather large”.

He said that advising people with a cough or fever to self-isolate for seven days was “a big change”. But that advice, along with a suggestion that school trips should be stopped and the elderly should avoid cruise ships, fell massively short of what other countries were doing.

While much of western Europe prepared to shut down to try to contain the virus, Sir Patrick and colleagues allowed the impression to take hold that Britain was resigned to about 40m or more people catching the disease — and that it would actually be a good thing.

Read more on this story here

UK supermarkets urge shoppers to exercise restraint

Jonathan Eley in London reports:

The UK’s supermarkets have published a joint letter in major newspapers calling for the public to exercise restraint after a day in which stores were again stripped of toilet rolls, sanitisers and many dried goods.

“We would ask everyone to be considerate in the way they shop,” the open letter stated. “We understand your concerns but buying more than is needed can sometimes mean that others will be left without. There is enough for everyone if we all work together”.

“We are working closely with government and our suppliers to keep food moving quickly through the system and making more deliveries to our stores to ensure our shelves are stocked,” it added. “Those of us with online delivery and click-and-collect services are running them at full capacity to help you get the products you need when you need them”.

The retailers’ letter was coordinated by the British Retail Consortium and signed by all the UK’s major supermarkets, including those such as Tesco which are not BRC members.

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said:

Retailers are working incredibly hard to keep shops well stocked and deliveries running as smoothly as possible. Food retailers have come together to ask their customers to support each other to make sure everyone can get access to the products they need.

Baltic politicans hit out at EU’s handling of the coronavirus crisis

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic Correspondent, reports;

Baltic politicians have hit out at the EU’s handling of the coronavirus crisis a day after Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all closed off their borders to foreigners.

Artis Pabriks, Latvia’s deputy prime minister, said on Twitter on Sunday: “Sad to admit, but Covid-19 crisis shows that EU is not fit and designed to react fast in times of crisis, either health, security or war.”

Marko Mihkelson, vice-chair of the foreign affairs committee of Estonia’s parliament, said: “EU member states are acting in their national lockdowns without any visible coordination between each other. This is serious stress test for the future of EU.”

Poland, Denmark and the Czech Republic all broke with EU pleas for a united response and closed their borders to foreigners on Friday. That sparked first Lithuania, then Latvia, and finally Estonia to follow suit on Saturday.

The EU has also faced sharp criticism in Italy over a perceived lack of solidarity with the hardest-hit European nation while China sent medical supplies.

Mr Pabriks added: “I hope that EU will be there when we would have to deal with post-crisis challenges, including financial assistance.”

UK set to ask over-70s to self isolate for up to four months

Laura Hughes in London reports

The UK government will ask anyone aged over 70 to self-isolate for up to four months amid pressure on the prime minister to act faster to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said the elderly would be asked to take measures to protect themselves from the virus in “the coming weeks”.

Speaking on Ridge On Sunday on Sky News, he warned coronavirus would “disrupt the lives of almost everybody” in the UK.

The number of people who have been diagnosed with Covid-19 in the UK has exceeded 1,000, with the number of deaths hitting 21. All of the deaths have been among those with underlying health conditions, or aged over 60.

Mr Hancock said:

The measures that we’re taking, the measures that we’re looking at taking are very, very significant and they will disrupt the ordinary lives of almost everybody in the country in order to tackle this virus.

Pushed on whether these measures were contained in the government’s action plan, he replied “That is in the action plan, yes, and we will be setting it out with more detail when it is the right time to do so because we absolutely appreciate that it is a very big ask of the elderly and the vulnerable, and it’s for their own self-protection.”

Netanyahu corruption trial postponed

Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv reports:

Israeli caretaker prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial for corruption, set to begin Tuesday, will now be delayed to at least late-May, after the courts were limited to emergency hearings to slow the rate of coronavirus infections.

The three-judge panel overseeing the premier’s long-awaited trial said they took the decision in light of the “declaration of emergency shifts at the court” just hours after Mr Netanyahu decided to shutter most non-essential businesses in a prime-time address to the nation.

Israel has about 200 cases of infection from the virus and no deaths so far, and has restricted all travellers to 14 days’ self-isolation, placed 55,000 people – including major public figures – into self-imposed quarantines and deployed the military to maintain supply chains.

The crisis has also allowed Mr Netanyahu, who has in the past year faced three challenges to his leadership, to demand that the opposition join him in an emergency unity government for at least six months to break the political paralysis caused by deadlocked polls.

His offer for a unity government with the Blue and White party, led by ex-military chief Benny Gantz, could conceivably give him another two years at the helm, making him the longest serving Israeli premier by far. Coalition talks officially begin today.

His indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust had hamstrung his attempts to create a governing coalition, and the historic trial – the first of a sitting Israeli prime minister – was expected to further complicate the task. Mr Netanyahu denies the charges and describes them as a conspiracy to topple his right-wing government.

Super Rugby becomes latest tournament to be suspended

Fergus Ryan in Hong Kong reports:

Super 15, the premier provincial rugby tournament in the Southern Hemisphere, has been suspended.

Sanzaar, the organisers of the competition that involves teams from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan, said it had “no option but to suspend the 2020 Super Rugby tournament at the conclusion of this weekend’s matches for the foreseeable future”.

The competition’s governing body made the decision after the New Zealand government said that all returning travellers, including rugby players, would have to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Across the Tasman Sea, the New Zealand cricket tour of Australia has been cancelled, while South Africa’s tour of Indian has also been called off. On Friday, England’s tour of Sri Lanka was postponed and the start of Indian premier League, the world’s richest cricket competition, was delayed until April 15.

Air Baltic suspends all flights

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic correspondent, reports:

Air Baltic has become the first airline to suspend all its flights due to the coronavirus pandemic as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all prepare to close their borders.

The Latvian-based airline said it was suspending all flights from March 17 until April 14 and its operations in all three Baltic countries would be affected.

Airline executives believe their industry is facing its biggest crisis in its 100-year history as a growing number of European countries close their borders and the US bars flights from Europe. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia all said on Saturday they would close their borders to foreigners in the coming days.

Air Baltic is one of the most indebted airlines in the world relative to its profitability and thus seen as particularly vulnerable. Its ratio of net debt to ebitda — a much-used measure of how easy it is for a company to service its debt — is 11.1, according to Bernstein Research, one of the highest among global carriers.

Lithuania’s said on Sunday that it was entering a period of quarantine with the majority of shops closed apart from food shops and chemists and nearly all Lithuanians banned from leaving the country as well as foreigners entering.

Returning pilgrim becomes sixth Turkish case

Laura Pitel in Ankara reports

Turkey has announced its sixth case of coronavirus in a Turkish pilgrim returning from Saudi Arabia.

The case prompted a stern warning from Turkey’s health minister, Fahrettin Koca, as some Turkish pilgrims shared photographs of themselves holding traditional post-pilgrimage visits with friends and family.

Mr Koca implored returnees — who are expected to number 21,000 this weekend — to spend 14 days at home. He added: “We are worried about new cases. Please do not accept visitors.”

Turkey’s previous five cases of coronavirus were all connected to one traveller, a Turkish citizen who had recently returned from Europe.

Thailand sees largest daily jump in coronavirus cases

John Reed in Bangkok reports

Thailand on Sunday reported 32 new COVID-19 cases, the largest daily jump since the coronavirus outbreak began. There are now 114 confirmed cases of the disease in the country, which was one of the first outside China to be hit by the disease.

The Thai government has stepped up restrictions on entry of visitors from countries with the highest reported caseloads of the disease in recent days.

Visitors from China, Hong Kong and Macau, Italy, Iran, and South Korea now have to apply for Thai visas in their home countries, and present airlines with a health certificate asserting they have no risk of COVID-19 infection before being allowed to board Thailand-bound flights.

South Korean data shows virus containment trend continuing

Edward White in Seoul reports

New confirmed coronavirus cases in South Korea fell to their lowest level in three weeks on Sunday, in the latest sign that a programme of mass testing and widespread social distancing is helping to contain what was one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the pandemic outside China.

Health officials in Seoul reported 76 new cases nationwide, down from a peak of 909 cases reported on February 29.

The latest figures from the Korea Centers for Disease Control marked the lowest number of new cases since 74 were reported on February 21 and the third straight day that the number of daily cured patients outpaced new infections.

The total case number in the country of 51m is now 8,162 while 75 people have died from the virus – a mortality rate of below 1 per cent – but officials remain concerned over the potential for new clusters to emerge.

South Korea has administered around 270,000 tests for the virus with as many as 10,000 carried out each day.

Saudi Arabia launches $13.3bn stimulus plan

Simeon Kerr in Dubai reports

Saudi Arabia unveiled a 50bn riyal ($13.3bn) stimulus plan for small and medium sized businesses as the oil-rich Gulf states act to support economies hit hard by coronavirus.

The kingdom’s central bank late on Saturday said it would roll out a package to defer bank payments and provide concessional financing.

The move followed the United Arab Emirates’ decision earlier on Saturday to launch a 100bn dirham ($27.2bn) economic support package to assist corporate and retail banking clients affected by the impact of coronavirus.

The package combines Dh50bn in zero cost loans to banks operating in the UAE and the freeing up of Dh50bn from their capital buffers.

The central bank said it aimed to provide temporary relief on principal and interest payments on outstanding loans to private sector companies and retail customers for up to six months. The bank also eased restrictions on real estate lending.

The virus has been spreading across the Gulf states, driven by residents returning from neighbouring Iran, a regional epicentre of the pandemic.
In the UAE, the government has moved to close down cultural centres and cinemas.

Other countries, such as Kuwait, have taken even more comprehensive measures, calling on residents to stay at home, and clearing public spaces where people continue to gather.

Australia imposes self-isolation on travellers arriving in country

Jamie Smyth in Sydney reports

All travellers arriving in Australia will be forced to go into self isolation for 14 days from midnight on Sunday under a tough new policy aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus, the government has said.

Scott Morrison, Australian prime minister, said on Sunday international cruise ships will be banned from docking for the next 30 days, gatherings of more than 500 people will be banned and people should refrain from shaking hands, as part of new advice on social distancing measures.

Self isolation for all travellers, including Australians returning to the nation from overseas, would be policed by legal enforcement, he said.

“If your mate has been to Bali and they come back and they turn up at work and they are sitting next to you, they will be committing an offence,” said Mr Morrison.

The tough self isolation measures for international travellers are similar to restrictions that are due to enter into force in New Zealand from midnight on Sunday.

They follow an increase in the number of coronavirus infections in Australia to more than 250 people, which include cases of community transmission that have not been traced back to travellers.

Mr Morrison said Australian schools would remain open for the time being, amid concerns sending children home could cause problems for healthcare workers who are parents. He said the government is working on new visitor guidelines to protect aged care centres from infection.

Australia’s cabinet has also agreed to hold more meetings by video conference rather than in person- a move that follows confirmation that Peter Dutton, Australia’s home affairs’ ministers, tested positive for the virus.

Welcome to the FT’s special weekend live coverage

The FT has launched special weekend live coverage of the coronavirus outbreak given how quickly this story is developing. We’ll be tapping our global network of reporters and editors to bring you the latest news.

Here are a couple of key stories:

– Spain has followed Italy’s lead in imposing a shutdown on its entire population to fight the coronavirus, while France is closing all non-essential shops and restaurants

– Donald Trump is extending a ban on travel between the US and European countries to include the UK and Ireland

– All travellers arriving in Australia will be forced to go into self isolation for 14 days from midnight on Sunday under a tough new policy aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus

– Air Baltic became the first airline to suspend all its flights due to the coronavirus pandemic as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all prepare to close their borders.

– Billionaire investor Ray Dalio said his Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, was caught flat-footed during this month’s coronavirus-led market turmoil, as its marquee strategy dropped about 20 per cent for the year following sharp reversals in stocks, bonds, commodities and credit.

Coronavirus latest: Ireland closes schools and Spain halts La Liga games


European stocks hit lows of the day after ECB holds rates

Tommy Stubbington reports:

Stock markets hit their lows for the day after the European Central Bank announced a package of easing measures but keeps rates on hold at minus 0.5 per cent. Markets had been pricing in a 0.1 percentage point rate cut.

The early market reaction suggests investors were hoping for more from the central bank.

The Stoxx Europe 600 fell more than 8 per cent. The euro edged higher, recently up 0.2 per cent on the day at $1.129.

Italian and Greek bonds — considered the riskiest government debt in the eurozone — sold off following the ECB decision. Italy’s 10-year yield was up a quarter of a percentage point at 1.48 per cent.

EmoticonECB leaves rates unchanged, boosts liquidity measures

The European Central Bank left rates unchanged, but has announced a package of policy measures to help the region’s economy through the coronavirus disruption.

The central bank said it would expand its asset purchase programme by €120 billion until the end of the year. It also outlined a package to provide liquidity support to the euro area financial system, and to encourage banks to lend to those affected most by the spread of the coronavirus, in particular small and medium-sized businesses.

Iran calls on UN to help remove US sanctions as virus spreads

Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran reports:

Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on the United Nations to help remove US sanctions which the Islamic republic claims have hampered medical care for coronavirus patients.

In a letter to UN secretary general António Guterres, a copy of which was published in Persian-speaking media on Thursday, he said the US sanctions had created “serious obstacles” in the country’s efforts to contain further spread of the respiratory illness and import medical equipment.

Mr Zarif added that the US sanctions on oil exports had weakened Iran’s ability to pay for subsidies on basic commodities and medicine while banking and insurance restrictions and sanctions on the aviation industry had created obstacles in the country’s efforts to treat patients.

Iran initially shrugged off the impacts of sanctions on its treatment of coronavirus patients. But as the virus claims more lives, the authorities have started speaking out against the US sanctions and appealled for international help.

Mr Zarif also said in a post on Twitter:

Iranian care personnel are courageously battling #COVID19 on frontlines. Their efforts are stymied by vast shortages caused by restrictions on our people’s access to medicine/equipment.

Spanish royals and cabinet tested for virus as cases rise

Spain’s King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia have undergone tests for coronavirus, as has the country’s entire cabinet, Daniel Dombey in Madrid writes.

This comes after Irene Moreno, the equality minister, was found to have the virus.
The Royal Palace said the results of the monarch’s test would be made public.

Results of the cabinet members’ tests are also scheduled to be released on Thursday afternoon.

Spain has hit almost 3,000 cases of coronavirus, according to figures released on Thursday afternoon. The number of documented cases has risen to 2,968 – up from around 2,200 on Wednesday evening. The Madrid region accounts for almost half of the total, with 1,388 cases.

So far, 84 people have died across the country and 189 have recovered.

Poland records first death from Covid-19 as disease takes hold

James Shotter in Warsaw reports:

Poland is likely to report a sharp rise in coronavirus infections, as the central European country recorded its first death from the novel virus, the government said.

As 16 of Poland’s 47 coronavirus cases emerged on Wednesday, the health minister said that number could grow to as much as 1,000 over the next week.

“We will probably soon have 100 people infected with coronavirus and certainly, in a week, let’s hope a little longer, we will have similar numbers of infected people as in other countries, that is… a thousand,” Lukasz Szumowski said on Thursday in an interview with broadcaster TVN24.

According to Poland’s state media, the first Polish victim of the disease was a 57-year-old lady from Poznan. She had not been abroad, but had had contact several days ago with someone who had returned from Italy.

Poland has unveiled steps to contain the spread of the virus, including closing schools, and cultural institutions such as museums and cinemas, banning mass gatherings and introducing health checks on its borders.

Michal Dworczyk, the top aide to prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, on Thursday urged businesses to introduce remote working for staff where possible.

“In the prime ministers’ chancellery 55 per cent of staff is already working remotely, he said. “We will try to increase this number.”

Deutsche Bank chief says lender in ‘good shape’ to handle virus fallout

Olaf Storbeck in Frankfurt reports:

Deutsche Bank chief executive Christian Sewing on Thursday insisted that Germany’s largest lender was in “good shape” to weather the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic as it becomes one of the worst victims of a sell-off on the German stock market.

Mr Sewing wrote in a memo to staff that “the positive momentum of the fourth quarter has continued” into 2020. By the end of last year Deutsche Bank’s investment showed some signs of life and the lender’s capital buffers were better than expected by analysts.

However, since mid-February, when the coronavirus started to spread outside China, shares in Deutsche Bank have collapsed by close to 50 per cent.

In midday trading on Thursday, the stock was down more than 8 per cent for the day, hitting a new all-time low of €5.47 with investors fearing a potential recession could hit the lender hard and derail its ambitious restructuring.

Analysts regard 2020 as a crucial year in Mr Sewing’s turnround plan that entails the cutting 18,000 jobs and shrinking the balance sheet by a fifth in an attempt to lower costs and lift earnings.

“Watching our performance in the quarter to date, it is clear to me that our new strategy … has enhanced our flexibility and resilience – especially in an unfavourable environment,” Mr Sewing said on Thursday, adding that the lender was “better equipped for a difficult phase in the financial markets now than we were just a year ago” and had the financial strength “to manage through this period”.

In recent days, several Deutsche Bank employees tested positive for the virus, triggering the temporary closure of some branches in Germany. Since Monday, Deutsche Bank traders in London and Frankfurt are working in physically separate teams to reduce the risk of infections and to avoid a shutdown of operations.

Germany’s CDU cancels party conference and delays leadership vote

Tobias Buck in Berlin reports:

The coronavirus outbreak has forced Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats to cancel next month’s party conference, and delay the keenly-expected vote on who should lead the party into the next general election.

“For the CDU of Germany it is completely clear that the safety and health of the people in our country have absolute priority,” party chief Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a statement on Thursday.

Against the backdrop of the current predictions regarding the further spread of Covid-19 the planned party conference on April 25 will not take place.I will recommend … to hold the party conference when the epidemiological situation allows it.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, who replaced Angela Merkel as party leader in late 2018, announced her resignation in February, after a series of damaging internal clashes had undermined her credibility and support.

Her decision to stand down has sparked a three-way struggle for succession, with Armin Laschet, the prime minister of the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and Friedrich Merz, a conservative former CDU MP and businessman, widely seen as the frontrunners. The third candidate is Norbert Röttgen, a CDU MP and the chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

With the CDU holding a small but persistent lead in the polls, the next party leader could be in a strong position to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor of Germany after the next election, which is scheduled for 2021.

Spain’s La Liga suspends matches following Real Madrid quarantine

Murad Ahmed, sports correspondent, reports:

Spain’s top football league, La Liga, has postponed its competition after players from Real Madrid were quarantined due to fears over the coronavirus.

On Thursday, the club announced that a Real Madrid basketball player, who shares facilities with other sports teams including football players, had tested positive for the virus.

This led Real Madrid to close its training grounds, with all athletes sent home and into self isolation. In response, La Liga said it would suspend Spanish football matches for “at least the next two match days.”

The “decision will be reevaluated after the completion of the quarantines decreed in the affected clubs and other possible situations that may arise,” said a La Liga spokesperson.

Italy’s Serie A has also been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak across the country, while several matches across Europe have been played in empty stadiums over recent days.

Lloyds of London to close underwriting room for one day

Oliver Ralph, insurance correspondent, reports:

Lloyd’s of London, the insurance market, is to close its underwriting room tomorrow for one day to test its systems and carry out a deep clean.

Lloyd’s is one of the few remaining face-to-face financial markets left in the City of London, and thousands of people use the building every day. Chief executive John Neal said that he could not remember a time when it had been closed before.

Mr Neal said that Lloyd’s had systems in place to deal with crisis situations. “I felt strongly we should close the market to see how those protocols work in anger.”

Lloyd’s has been increasing the amount of business carried out electronically over the past few years, but Mr Neal said that for more complex types of insurance, face to face meetings were still important.

“There is value in discussion and there always will be for this type of business,” he said.

No members of Lloyd’s own staff have tested positive for the virus, he added.

McLaren pulls out of Australian Grand Prix

McLaren will not compete in this year’s Formula One Australian Grand Prix after a team member tested positive for the virus. The team member has been put into quarantine.

In a statement on Twitter, McLaren said:

https://twitter.com/McLarenF1/status/1238062852306583552

Ireland closes schools and colleges

Arthur Beesley in Dublin reports:

Leo Varadkar has ordered the closure of Ireland’s schools, colleges and childcare facilities from 6pm on Thursday until March 29.

The Irish prime minister called for the cancellation of all indoor mass gatherings of more than 100 people and outdoor mass gatherings of more than 500 people.

“We have not witnessed a pandemic of this nature in living memory and this is uncharted territory for us,” Mr Varadkar said in an address televised from Washington, where he is meeting Donald Trump for St Patrick’s Day celebrations. “We have to move now to have the greatest impact.”

Cathay owner Swire Pacific sees profits tumble

Primrose Riordan in Hong Kong reports:

Hong Kong’s colonial-era conglomerate Swire Pacific, which owns airline Cathay, said profit attributable to the company’s shareholders fell by 62 per cent in 2019 and it expects a recurring loss in the first half of this year due to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Our businesses in Hong Kong and mainland China are being adversely affected by Covid-19,” Swire chairman Merlin Swire said. “The effect on Cathay Pacific is particularly severe.”

The company said its net profit was HK$9bn (US$1.16bn) in 2019, compared with HK$23.63bn a year earlier. But its revenue increased slightly from HK$84.6bn in 2018 to HK$85.6bn in 2019.

During the year Hong Kong experienced a serious political crisis and protest movement which the company said made for a challenging year.

Italy’s top attractions lie empty as country hunkers down

Not that long ago Rome’s Trevi fountain and Venice’s St Marks Square were so inundated with tourists that local authorities were seeking ways to ease the stampede of Instagrammers.

Plans were hatched to build up protective barriers and ease the queue lengths to Italy’s attractions from Rome to Venice and beyond.

Now Italy’s streets and squares are deserted, as you can see on the Skyline web cam service, with the population of 60m going into lockdown. Locals are staying at home and tourists are staying away.

Here is St Mark’s Square in Venice:

Local authorities sealed off the Trevi fountain in Rome late on Tuesday.

Miles Johnson and Davide Ghiglione in Rome this week took stock of the silence that has befallen the country.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit Italy particularly hard and, with 827 deaths recorded and more than 12,000 cases confirmed, the European nation has become the worst affected country after mainland China.

Real Madrid goes into quarantine

Daniel Dombey in Madrid reports:

Real Madrid’s football and basketball teams, together with all their staff, have gone into quarantine after one of their first team basketball players tested positive for coronavirus.

Both teams have cancelled imminent matches, Real Madrid said in a communique.

Russian stocks drop to three-year low

Russia’s stock market fell to a three-year low on Thursday amid further falls in oil prices and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The dollar-denominated RTS index fell more than 10 per cent, while the Moscow exchange index fell 5 per cent, Max Seddon writes.

The ruble fell 1.6 per cent to trade at 74.5 to the dollar.

Shares in state-owned airline Aeroflot led the fall at more than 12 per cent after Russia banned several routes to coronavirus-stricken countries in western Europe.

Iran contacts 3.5m over virus

Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran reports:

Iran’s health minister said that a national mobilisation scheme has contacted 3.5m people out of the country’s population of 80m.

Dr Saeed Namaki said 270 patients had been hospitalised following the scheme, which began last week, and that this had helped prevent people unnecessarily going to hospitals and being exposed to possible infection.

Iran began the scheme by promising to send 300,000 medical teams joined by the voluntary forces of the Revolutionary Guards to examine all households and ensure nobody was hiding or deprived of medical treatment. The plan has been operational in at least five provinces so far and will cover the whole country.

Iran has announced the number of deaths went up to 429 from 354 on Wednesday while the confirmed cases increased to 10,075 from 9,000. Iran still opposes quarantining any city but has started a national campaign to encourage people to stay at home in particular during the Persian New Year holidays to begin next Friday.

Dr Namaki also said that the “storm” in the provinces of Qom — the origin of the virus — and Gilan — along the Caspian Sea in the north and one of the worst hit — had begun to subside as the number released from and admitted into hospitals became almost equal over the past few days.

WHO explains ‘pandemic’ label

World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expanded on Wednesday’s decision to call Covid-19 a pandemic, at a meeting with diplomats in Geneva this morning, Clive Cookson writes.

He gave two reasons. First is the speed and scale of transmission. Almost 125,000 cases have been reported to the WHO, from 118 countries. In the past two weeks, the number reported outside China has increased almost 13-fold and the number of affected countries has almost tripled. He added:

The second reason is that despite our frequent warnings, we are deeply concerned that some countries are not approaching this threat with the level of political commitment needed to control it.

Dr Tedros, while refusing to name those countries, said:

Countries that decide to give up on fundamental public health measures may end up with a larger problem, and a heavier burden on the health system that requires more severe measures to control.

All countries must strike a fine balance between protecting health, preventing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights.

The WHO wants countries to take a four-pronged approach, Dr Tedros said.
First, the 77 countries with no reported cases and 55 with fewer than 10 should “prepare and be ready”.

Second, “detect, prevent and treat. You can’t fight a virus if you don’t know where it is. That means robust surveillance to find, isolate, test and treat every case, to break the chains of transmission.”

Third, “reduce and suppress. That means finding and isolating as many cases as possible, and quarantining their closest contacts.”

Fourth, “innovate and improve” through research.

Nordic and Baltic cities shut schools

Richard Milne, Nordic and Baltic correspondent writes

Authorities across the Nordic and Baltic region moved to close down schools, kindergartens and universities due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The cities of Oslo and Bergen as well as multiple other smaller Norwegian towns said that schools and kindergartens would close from Monday, but the national government refrained from a blanket ban.

Still, prime minister Erna Solberg said:

We must be prepared that today we will come with the strongest and most radical measures we have had in peacetime in Norway.

Latvian authorities said they were looking at closing schools for an extra week after next week’s spring holiday, while Lithuania’s education minister said he was proposing closing all places of education for two weeks.

Estonia’s prime minister banned cruise ships from docking and events of more than 100 people while Finland’s government prepared to introduce its first restrictions on events.

All this came after Denmark on Wednesday night took the toughest measures in the region so far by closing down all schools and universities as well as ordering most civil servants to work from home.

Brussels lashes out at ‘unilateral’ US travel ban

Michael Peel in Brussels reports

EU leaders in Brussels have slammed President Donald Trump’s “unilateral” ban on travel from many European countries and warned the coronavirus pandemic is an international problem that demands co-ordinated action.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, and Charles Michel, president of the European Council of EU national leaders, issued a joint statement on Thursday that highlighted European alarm at the US move.

“The coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action,” they said.

The European Union disapproves of the fact that the US decision to improve a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation. The European Union is taking strong action to limit the spread of the virus.

Spanish cabinet all being tested for virus after minister infected

Daniel Dombey in Madrid reports:

Spain’s entire cabinet is being tested for coronavirus, with the results due to be announced on Thursday afternoon, after a minister was found to have been infected.

Irene Montero, equalities minister, tested positive and is now in quarantine with her partner, Pablo Iglesias, one of Spain’s deputy prime ministers and leader of the radical left Podemos party.

At least two other MPs have tested positive for the virus, which led both chambers of parliament to suspend plenary parliamentary sessions for at least this week.

Spain’s government said Ms Montero’s condition was good.

Spain’s cabinet is continuing with plans to meet later in the day to approve a “shock plan” to combat the crisis – including economic measures.

But Pedro Sánchez, prime minister, will carry out his subsequent meetings via videoconference.

Covid-19 tightens grip in Italy as deaths mount

Steve Bernard, senior data visualisation journalist, reports:

More than 4,600 people have died globally from the coronavirus pandemic, as the number of new cases discovered slows in China but soars in Italy.

The toll mounted to 4,641 deaths globally as of Thursday morning, with 126,660 cases confirmed.

In Italy 827 have died from the disease, making the European country by far the worst hit by the virus Covid-19 after mainland China. In Hubei province, where the outbreak began in December, 3,056 people have died.

US Treasury market conditions have ‘materially deteriorated’, BofA says

Conditions in the US sovereign bond market — the world’s biggest — have “materially deteriorated” in recent days and will likely require “a rapid and large near-term” response, Bank of America has said.

Measures of Treasury market volatility have shot higher to levels last seen in 2011, the eurozone debt crisis, and during the global financial crisis in 2008. The tumult has stretched far and wide, from equities, to corporate debt, and currencies. But the US bond market is considered a haven during times of stress — and its proper functioning seen as critical lubrication for the broader financial market.

The US lender said in a note to clients on Thursday that the Treasury market has “been very volatile due to macro uncertainty.” Yields have fluctuated wildly this week, with the benchmark 10-year yield tumbling on Monday to a low of 0.32 per cent.

BofA said dealers in the Treasury market had widened the spread in price at which they are willing to buy and sell the US government debt at, something that is typically a sign of diminishing liquidity. “These dynamics have materially worsened market functioning”, BofA said.

“Sustained illiquidity in the US Treasury market threatens the ability for certain actors to retain their US Treasury positions and could result in large scale position liquidation,” the bank said.

BofA said the deterioration in conditions means the US Treasury or Federal Reserve will need to act fast. It added that the Fed’s recent injection of billions of dollars into the repo market may not be enough.

It said:

We are concerned that the size of this repo operation may not be large enough to stabilize the cheapening in US Treasury securities and materially improve Treasury market liquidity. We believe it may take a more forceful action from the US Treasury or Federal Reserve to act as a “circuit breaker” in these illiquid Treasury markets.

More to come…

Inflation expectations hit fresh low ahead of ECB decision

Martin Arnold in Frankfurt reports:

Investors’ inflation expectations have sunk to a record low in the eurozone, piling pressure on the European Central Bank to inject a fresh monetary stimulus when it meets on Thursday to discuss its response to the economic crisis created by coronavirus.

Falling oil prices and fears of a eurozone recession have caused the so-called European five-year five-year swaps — a market measure of where inflation expectations will be in five years’ time – to fall below 0.9 per cent for the first time.

The metric — which is known as the 5y5y — is closely tracked by the ECB because it tells policymakers whether markets are convinced a central bank has the tools needed to keep the inflation rate within its set target.

The sharp fall in the metric indicates that investors are increasingly sceptical that the ECB can achieve its main target for inflation to be close to 2 per cent.

Expectations of an economic crisis in Italy are sending ripples through sovereign debt markets, where the spread between Italian 10-year bonds and German 10-year bunds widened to more than 2 per cent — its highest level since last August.

The ECB restarted its €2.6tn asset-purchase programme last September, promising to buy €20bn of bonds a month until inflation rose in line with its target.

Economists now predict it may increase its monthly bond purchases to €40bn as well as cutting its deposit rate to a new record low of minus 0.6 per cent and extending more cheap loans to banks to encourage them to keep credit flowing to small businesses.

1MDB trial adjourned after defence goes into quarantine

Stefania Palma in Singapore reports:

The 1MDB trial involving Najib Razak, Malaysia’s former prime minister, has been adjourned after his defence team said it was in quarantine following potential exposure to coronavirus.

Mr Najib’s defence team, led by Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, did not appear in Kuala Lumpur’s high court on Thursday.

Farhah Mustaffa, a lawyer at Mr Shafee’s firm, told the judge that medical staff ordered the team to self-quarantine for 14 days after Mr Shafee came into close contact with his sister-in-law – who is being tested for coronavirus – during a family function in his home at the weekend.

The judge has asked the defence to submit, by 9:30am on Friday, a letter from the hospital testing the woman and one from the ministry of health. If the request is not met, the trial will proceed on Friday. The woman is expected to receive test results by Friday evening.

The 1MDB case is one of four faced by Mr Najib, founder of 1MDB, the Malaysian state investment fund embroiled in a multi-billion dollar embezzlement scandal. Mr Najib denies wrongdoing.

FTSE 100 on track for worst month since Black Monday

The FTSE 100 was trading 5.6 per cent lower in mid-morning trading, taking its losses for the month to more than 15 per cent.

The sweeping March sell-off has left the index on track to record its worst monthly performance since October 1987’s Black Monday, when it lost more than 25 per cent of its value in one of the largest market crashes in history.

The Stoxx Europe 600, an index tracking the wider region’s largest companies, is also on track for its worst monthly percentage drop since 1987.

Wall Street circuit breakers: how they work

US stock-index futures are down 5 per cent — the maximum fall allowed outside of normal Wall Street trading hours. It feels a little bit like déjà vu, as this same situation played out on Monday of this week.

The US equities market has different ‘kill switches’ than the equities index futures market. A Level One circuit breaker was tripped on Monday right after the opening bell, when the S&P 500 plunged 7 per cent. That triggered a 15-minute suspension.

Here is a short guide on how the system works:

There are three levels that trigger these automatic curbs across US equities markets. Each is based on the broad S&P 500.

Level 1 – 7 per cent fall
Level 2 – 13 per cent fall
Level 3 – 20 per cent fall

If either a Level 1 or 2 fall occurs before 3.25pm New York time, trading is halted for 15 minutes. If it happens at or after that time, trading continues as normal.

A Level 3 drop halts trading for the remainder of the day, regardless of when it is triggered. Wall Street stocks typically trade from 9.30am to 4pm.

The only time markets have been halted for the remainder of the day due to trading curbs was in 1997, during the Asian financial crisis. (Different circuit breakers, based on the narrower Dow Jones Industrial Average, were in effect at that time).

UK not planning to follow US with introduction of travel ban

George Parker, political editor, reports:

Rishi Sunak, UK chancellor, said on Thursday that he did not see the need for Britain to follow Donald Trump down the route of introducing a travel ban.

“The evidence here does not support that,” Mr Sunak told the BBC.

Government ministers have argued that Italy introduced a travel ban from China that was ultimately unsuccessful in stopping the spread of the virus.

Iran asks IMF for $5bn in emergency funding

Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran reports:

Iran called on the IMF to allocate the Islamic republic $5bn of its $50bn package of emergency financing for countries stricken by coronavirus.

Iran’s central bank governor, Nasser Hemmati, called on Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the IMF, to demonstrate it was important for the multilateral lender to help ease the pain of people and “quickly” carry out its responsibilities vis-a-vis members states.

In an Instagram post on Thursday, Mr Hemmati said:

Based on your official statement to support members including Iran and considering the extensive spread of coronavirus in our country and the necessity to continue preventive measures, [medical] treatment and battling against the economic consequences … we demand $5bn of the financial assistance.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, also said in a post on Twitter that the “IMF/IMF Board should adhere to Fund’s mandate stand on right side of history & act responsibly”.

The Islamic republic is worried that the US may stop financial assistance to the country because of sanctions which have cut Iran off from the global banking system.

Iran says while the US sanctions do not directly apply to food and medicine, Iran in practice finds imports of necessary equipment difficult because of its shrinking revenues and no access to the world’s financial system. This makes imports costly and time-consuming. Iran is struggling with shortages of ventilators, face masks, test kits, surgical gowns and has appealed for international help.

Berkeley curbs shareholder return plans

Donato Paolo Mancini in London reports:

Housebuilder Berkeley has curtailed its shareholder return programme as the coronavirus pandemic takes its toll on the UK’s housebuilding sector.

The group had said in January it would almost double its capital return to shareholders to £1bn through so-called B and C share schemes, issuing shares and buying them back at a later date. The schemes may mean some shareholders are liable for less tax.

On Thursday, it said its proposed £455m increase to the programme would be postponed “until there is greater clarity of operation impact of Coronavirus on UK economic activity”.

“While there has been no noticeable impact on Berkeley’s business to date, the ultimate impact on UK business is unknown,” said the company.

There is no recent historic precedent and for this reason it is absolutely right for any responsible business to approach the next six months with a reduced risk appetite and heightened sense of caution.

Berkeley had net cash in excess of £1bn at the time of the statement, it said, with a further £750m available from bank facilities. A dividend of 99.32 p a share will be paid on March 31. Berkeley shares fell 8 per cent in early London trading.

EmoticonS&P 500 futures fall 5%, triggering trading curb

S&P 500 futures have fallen 5 per cent, triggering trading curbs meant to calm excessive market moves.

The futures contracts are used by investors to speculate on or hedge against moves in the S&P 500 index, the US equity gauge.

The triggering of the so-called ‘limit down’ mechanism is the latest indication of the stress flooding through markets in the most volatile stretch of trading since the 2008-09 financial crisis.

Trading in the US equity’s market was temporarily suspended on Monday after the S&P 500 index fell 7 per cent at the open. The index is teetering on the edge of a bear market and fell more than 4.9 per cent on Wednesday.

Cases detected in displaced people camp in Iraq

Chloe Cornish, Middle East correspondent, reports:

The first suspected coronavirus cases have been recorded in one of Iraq’s huge camps for people who have been internally displaced, the UN’s humanitarian coordination agency has reported.

Iraq has more thanr 1m people displaced after the war with Sunni jihadi insurgents Isis that raged from 2014 to 2017. Nearly 200,000 people live in camps whom the UN classifies as being in “acute need” of aid.

The affected people in the camp in northern Iraq’s Ninewa province were taken to hospital, according to the UN’s report.

The prospect of coronavirus spreading in Iraq’s overcrowded, under-resourced and often isolated internal displacement camps is a nightmare scenario for aid agencies and the Iraqi government, which has confirmed more than 70 people have been infected.

Iraqi authorities have restricted public gatherings, closed schools and universities, and suspended commercial cargo transport from neighbouring Iran and Kuwait.

They have imposed internal and external travel restrictions.

London ambulance service ‘extremely busy’

The London Ambulance Service has said it is “extremely busy” and reminded the public only to call the 999 number in a genuine emergency.

Call handlers were dealing with nearly 400 calls per hour on Wednesday, and the ambulance service asked the public for its help to “make sure we can speak to and treat those with the most life-threatening injuries and illnesses first”.

https://twitter.com/Ldn_Ambulance/status/1238023519788728320?s=20

Thailand suspends trading after 10% fall on index

John Reed in Bangkok reports:

The Stock Exchange of Thailand suspended trading after the main SET index dropped by 10 per cent.

The Bangkok bourse announced the move at 2:44pm on Thursday afternoon, after the fall triggered its circuit breaker system, which is meant to curb any excessive volatility in the market that could cause investor panic.

Thailand’s economy relies heavily on tourism and trade with China, and has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s cabinet on Tuesday approved a Bt400bn ($12.7bn) stimulus package meant to mitigate the impact of the disease on south-east Asia’s second-largest economy.

WHSmith forecasts fall in profits and sales due to virus impact

Jonathan Eley in London reports:

UK retailer WHSmith said the coronavirus outbreak will reduce underlying pre-tax profit by £30-40m in the financial year ending August 31 as the impact spreads from Asia, where it has limited exposure, to its main theatres of operation in the UK, Europe and the US.

“Based on current trading and modelling, the group believes that the effects of Covid-19 will result in a reduction in our expectations for revenue and profit across the Travel business for the second half,” it said in a stock exchange statement.

Prior to the warning, markets were expecting full-year pretax profit of £79.8m.

It said that in UK travel, which accounts for three-fifths of the division’s revenues, sales are expected to be 15 per cent below expectations with airports down 35 per cent in March and April. The travel business in the UK also includes hospitals, train stations and motorway service areas.

In the US and other international travel businesses, revenue is expected to fall by a fifth.

It cautioned that, while it is not currently seeing a significant impact on its UK high street business, which is run for cash rather than sales growth, it “recognises that Covid-19 could result in reduced high street footfall”.

Government bonds rally but yields remain well off historic lows

Government bonds have rallied as investors search for safe areas of the market.

The yield on the 10-year US Treasury fell 8 basis points to 0.739 per cent as investors moved into the debt, but was still well off the historic low hit earlier in the week. Yields fall as prices rise.

The US 10-year had fallen below 0.4 per cent on Monday in an unprecedented flight into government bonds that has not been repeated later in the week even as equity markets sell-off aggressively on rising fears of significant economic disruption.

“It’s noticeable that so far this week, the bond market is mixed rather than rallying,” said Société Générale’s Kit Juckes.

“After such big moves and such a big re-pricing of monetary policy, it isn’t all one-way traffic any more, even if the newsflow remains dire,” he said.

The yield on the benchmark German and UK 10-years also fell in the European morning.

Travelex owner Finablr warns over ability to access cash

Daniel Thomas in London reports:

Finablr, the global payments and foreign exchange group that owns Travelex in the UK, has warned over its ability to access cash needed to manage its business as well as negotiate longer term financing.

The group, which shares common shareholders with beleaguered healthcare chain NMC Health, said that it was “taking urgent steps to assess accurately its current liquidity and cashflow position” to address short- and longer-term financing needs.

Finablr has been hit by a number of problems including travel restrictions imposed to limit the spread of Covid-19 that have reduced demand for foreign exchange services and restricted the movement of physical currencies needed in its businesses.

But Finablr also pointed to the recent credit downgrade of Travelex’s bonds and a “liquidity squeeze at both group and operational business level”. It said that it had also suffered from a shared ownership with NMC, saying that there were “adverse perceptions in the market that the circumstances surrounding NMC Health… are relevant to Finablr, which have exacerbated current levels of stress on the company’s cashflow position”.

Finablr said that these have placed “significant constraints on the company’s access to the daily liquidity the company needs to manage its business effectively and its ability to negotiate longer term financing”.

The payments platform has already been forced to warn earlier this month that its profits would be hit by the outbreak of coronavirus as well as a crippling cyber attack on Travelex at the start of the year.

Shares in NMC Health were suspended last month after a series of damaging disclosures about its debt and cash positioning forced a boardroom clearout, leading to the City watchdog opening a formal probe into its finances.

China passenger vehicle sales dive 82 per cent in February

Christian Shepherd in Beijing reports

Passenger vehicle sales in China plummeted by 82 per cent in February compared to a year earlier, as the coronavirus has sharply deepened a downturn in the world’s largest car market.

Automakers are bracing for a long wait until recovering in the China market, due to the knock-on effects of the virus, which has caused production shutdowns, emptied dealerships and distrusted supply chains.

Last month, the outbreak led China association of automobile manufacturers, or CAAM, a leading industry body, to lower its sales prediction for 2020 to negative growth of 5 per cent, locking in a third year of contraction.

The outbreak has also hit China’s electric car market, an area of strategic importance to both the industry and the Chinese government, with sales of electrified passenger cars down 76 per cent year-on-year last month, CAAM said.

While almost all of China’s automakers have now restarted production, many are operating well below full capacity due to delays in staff returning and tepid demand, which analysts say will lead to mounting costs should consumer sentiment remain weak.

China’s government has signalled that it is ready to step in to support the industry with tax breaks and subsidies for buyers, with at least four cities already releasing policies to support the industry in their locals.

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European markets tumble more than 5%

Global stocks tumbled on Wednesday, extending a week of historic tumult, after the US suspended travel from Europe and public health authorities declared the coronavirus outbreak a “pandemic”.

President Donald Trump announced the move in a televised address hours after the World Health Organization said the crisis was now a “pandemic”. The number of cases of infected patients in the US has risen to 1,281. Mr Trump said the new travel restrictions, which exclude the UK, would take effect from Friday. 

European markets dropped in the wake of the announcement. The continent-wide Stoxx 600, German Dax and FTSE 100 were all down more than 5 per cent in early dealings.

The sharp falls echoed a sell-off in Asia that knocked MSCI’s index of equities in the region down another 4 per cent. US stock-index futures were recently down more than 4 per cent, leaving them near the 5 per cent limit for moves outside of normal market hours.

Wall Street’s S&P 500 was already down 19 per cent from the February record high at Wednesday’s close, leaving it at the precipice of a bear market that would halt an 11-year bull run.

European travel and leisure stocks slide

Travel and leisure stocks in Europe have come under intense pressure this morning after the World Health Organization labelled the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic and the US banned travel from Europe.

The index tracking travel and leisure shares on the Europe-wide Stoxx 600 fell 8 per cent, leaving it down 36 per cent this year.

Airline stocks were particularly hard hit after US president Donald Trump banned citizens of many European nations from entering the US for 30 days.

British Airways owner IAG was down 10 per cent, Air France-KLM tumbled 17 per cent and Lufthansa was off 9 per cent.

Duty free operator Dufry unable to issue guidance

Jonathan Eley in London reports:

Dufry, the world’s largest operator of duty-free shops in airports, said it could not issue guidance for the current financial year because of the impact of coronavirus.

“Currently it’s still challenging to estimate the impact for the full year,” the group said in its annual results statement.

The Swiss company, which operates over 2,400 travel retail stores, said organic sales in February were down 7.3 per cent, while between January 1 and March 8 they were 3.8 per cent lower. Organic sales growth includes same-store sales and net new concession space.

Asia-Pacific sales were down by a double digit amount, it said, with Central and South America the only area where sales rose.

The downturn contrasts with a 3 per cent rise in group organic sales, to SFr8.8bn, in the year to December 31 2019.

It said it had implemented a plan to “to secure cash flow generation, drive sales and safeguard profitability” which is expected to generate savings of SFr60m in the full year. A further SFr40m will be saved by tighter control of capital spending and working capital.

The group’s shares have halved in value since the start of this year and closed last night at SFr46.54, giving it a market value of SFr2.35bn.

Biotech group Novacyt increases Covid-19 test output as sales boom

Anglo-French group Novacyt is ramping up its manufacturing of Covid-19 test kits as its sales this year have boomed.

Primerdesign, its molecular diagnostics division that has developed the test, has sold and received orders for more than £2.3m, as of March 11, of its CE-Mark and research use only Covid-19 tests. That under normal circumstance would represent about five months of sales in the unit, Novacyt said in a statement on Thursday.

Primerdesign has scaled up its capacity to produce the test over the past two weeks and said it is meeting demand. It has enough raw materials to make 3.5m Covid-19 tests.

The group has appointed another manufacturer based in continental Europe. Combined they can produce up to 2m Covid-19 tests a month and this increase will be available with the next two weeks, it said.

The group has doubled the number of countries it sells its tests to to more than 50 and is expected to increase as the virus spreads.

“We believe the commercial demand for and interest in our Covid-19 test could continue for several months as the virus continues to spread from country to country,” said Graham Mullis, chief executive of the Paris- and Camberley-based company.

We are therefore ensuring we are fully prepared to meet the increasing demand for the product, as we continue to position Novacyt to support the global response to monitor and contain the Covid-19 outbreak.

Cineworld says extreme virus scenario could force it out of business

In a worst-case scenario, the spread of coronavirus could cause Cineworld to be unable to pay its debts and call into question its ability to continue trading.

While its share price has fallen 60 per cent since the beginning of the year, the world’s second biggest cinema chain said the virus had yet to have a material impact on its finances and that it was impossible to predict what would happen going forward.

But in a scenario analysis carried out by management that assumes the loss of the equivalent of two to three months revenue there is a risk of breaching its financial covenants.

That in turn would “indicate the existence of a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt about the group’s ability to continue as a going concern”, it said.

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European stock futures under heavy pressure after Asia falls

European stock markets were poised to open sharply lower, echoing steep falls across Asia, after the US banned travel from Europe and health authorities declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.

German Dax futures tumbled 6 per cent, with those tracking the Euro Stoxx 50 index of blue-chip eurozone companies down by roughly the same margin. London’s FTSE 100 futures declined by 5 per cent.

Asian markets were lower across the board: MSCI’s broad index tracking equity bourses in the region dropped 4 per cent. US S&P 500 futures were off 4 per cent, signalling Wall Street’s benchmark stock barometer could enter bear market territory — typically defined as a 20 per cent drop from a recent peak — when trading opens later in the day.

Donald Trump, in an Oval Office address delivered at primetime in America, announced the ban on travel to the US from Europe as part of several measures meant to cushion the blow of the Covid-19 outbreak. His speech came hours after the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic as it has spread more broadly across the world.

“The stock market fall accelerated after WHO declared Covid-19 as pandemic, meaning the virus is not a (multi) local problem anymore but has become a global disease,” said Lauri Hälikkä, a strategist at SEB, pointing to the reaction on Wednesday on Wall Street. “Trump announcing a travel ban to Europe (excluding the UK) for 30 days also added to the negative sentiment.”

EU ‘assessing situation’ following Trump travel ban

Michael Peel in Brussels writes:

Charles Michel, president of the European Council of EU national leaders, tweeted that the bloc would “assess the situation” after the US announcement. He warned: “Economic disruption must be avoided.”

https://twitter.com/eucopresident/status/1237984674384957445?s=20

Europe: What you might have missed

Donald Trump has imposed a 30-day travel ban from Europe to the US to reduce the spread of coronavirus. The restriction does not affect the UK. Mr Trump is also seeking $50bn from a disaster loan programme for small businesses.

That travel announcement from the US president pushed markets deeper into negative territory following a weak start after the World Health Organization labelled the outbreak as a pandemic.

Read more on markets here.

The NBA has suspended the season after a player was suspected to have the virus following initial testing.

Tokyo’s governor has said the Olympics will not be cancelled, despite the WHO newly classifying the disease as a pandemic. Olympic sponsors told the Financial Times that they fear coronavirus will delay the start of the games.

Australia has announced a $11bn stimulus package in a bid to prevent coronavirus plunging its economy into recession for the first time in almost three decades.

Chinese airlines took a $3bn hit in February as the number of air passengers in the country plummeted. New coronavirus cases in China fell to its lowest daily level since nationwide figures first started to be reported in January.

South Korea, one of the countries outside China with the highest number of coronavirus cases, confirmed 114 new infections on Thursday, the lowest number of new cases since February 21. The country has 7,869 cases.

Kuwait to close main airport for commercial flights

Simeon Kerr reports from Dubai

Kuwait will close its main airport to commercial flights from Friday as part of a package of further measures to isolate the Gulf state from the spread of coronavirus.

Incoming flights to Kuwait International Airport will be restricted to nationals and close relatives. Cargo flights will continue.

The cabinet has also introduced a two-week holiday for government departments, starting Thursday. Kuwait’s stock exchange also said it would suspend operations on Thursday.

The country will also ban people from gathering at restaurants and cafes, including those located in malls.

Kuwait has reported 70 cases of the disease, including three new cases on Wednesday, one of whom had travelled to Iran, the worst-hit country in the region. The others had contact with someone who had become infected in Azerbaijan.

Trump forced to clarify travel restrictions do not include cargo

When Donald Trump unveiled sweeping restrictions on travel from many parts of Europe to the US on Wednesday evening, it initially seemed that the flow of cargo across the Atlantic would also be affected.

A comment from the US president that freight would be part of the measures triggered serious concerns from officials in Washington, who feared that transatlantic trade would grind to a halt, further damaging an already weakened global economy.

But soon after concluding his statement, in which he said the “prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo, but various other things as we get approval,” the US president went on social media to correct the record.

“Please remember, very important for all countries & businesses to know that trade will in no way be affected by the 30-day restriction on travel from Europe. The restriction stops people not goods,” Mr Trump wrote on Twitter.

Read the full story from the FT’s James Politi here.

China airlines take $3bn hit from travel slump in February

Nicolle Liu reports from Hong Kong

China’s airlines lost an estimated Rmb20.96bn ($3bn) in February, according to the country’s regulator, as the coronavirus outbreak led to a collapse in air travel.

The number of passengers travelling by plane fell 84.5 per cent year-on-year to 8.34m for the month, the Civil Aviation Administration of China said on Thursday.

Beijing imposed strict controls on the movement of people in January and locked down entire cities in a bid to limit the spread of the virus. The first two months of the year are the busiest time for travel in China as workers return home for the lunar new year.

The average number of flights each day in February fell to 5,425, down two-thirds on the same period a year earlier.

February recorded the largest ever single-month loss of Rmb24.59bn for the aviation industry in China, of which airlines lost Rmb20.96bn, a CAAC spokeswoman said.

Domestic flight volume returned to about 40 per cent of the normal level in the first week of March, the CAAC said. Cargo and mail volume was down 21 per cent to 297,000 tonnes in February compared to a year earlier, it added.

Asian Development Bank closes Manila headquarters

John Reed reports from Bangkok

The Asian Development Bank has closed its Manila headquarters and asked staff to work at home from today after learning that a visitor tested positive for the coronavirus.

The multilateral bank said the facility would be closed from 12 March for “cleaning and disinfecting”, but that its operations would continue.

“The safety of the staff, visitors to the Bank, and their families is of utmost importance to us,” Deborah Stokes, the ADB’s vice president for administration and corporate management, said in a news release on Thursday.

The bank said it would decide in the coming days on when to reopen.

Trump seeks disaster loan funding to maintain growth

Brendan Greeley reports from Washington

Donald Trump said he would ask Congress to appropriate $50bn to a disaster loan programme run by the Small Business Administration, as part of a first round of economic measures to help maintain growth through the coronavirus pandemic.

“Effective immediately, the SBA will begin providing economic loans in affected states and territories,” he said on Wednesday. “These low-interest loans will help small businesses overcome temporary economic disruptions caused by the virus.”

In a note, Ernie Tedeschi of Evercore ISI called the loan proposal a “bright spot” in the president’s speech.

The programme has been traditionally used after hurricanes, floods and tornadoes to repair damaged homes and businesses. The president can free up the loan programme by declaring a disaster, but for significant catastrophes the loans require a supplemental appropriation from Congress, to account for loans that are not repaid.

It was not clear from the speech whether Mr Trump’s request referred to $50bn in total loan funding, or a $50bn appropriation, which could fund as much as $350bn in loans.

The Small Business Administration did not immediately respond to a request for clarification.

The president’s request is likely to meet a receptive audience in Congress, which already approved $1bn to fund $7bn in loans through the programme, as part of the supplemental appropriation it passed on March 6.

El Salvador blocks foreigners for a month and shuts schools

Jude Webber reports from Mexico City

El Salvador has been put under a month-long quarantine in a drastic attempt to prevent the spread of coronavirus despite Latin America’s smallest country having no confirmed cases.

“As a country we are focused on, for now, not having cases of Covid-19,” said President Nayib Bukele. “These are measures to prevent [it] and keep our population healthy, following all international protocols.”

He nonetheless appealed for economic activity to continue. “These are tough decisions but I’m sure you understand,” the president told business people.

Foreigners, aside from residents or diplomats, will be prevented from entering the country for 30 days, public and private schools will be shut for 21 days and gatherings of more than 500 people, such as sporting events or concerts, will be banned.

“We ask for the international community’s understanding,” Mr Bukele said. “We understand that this situation will affect your compatriots. Anyone can leave the country but the restriction on entering El Salvador is for everyone’s good.”

The president’s press office said on Twitter that Mr Bukele had offered to “buy up hotel [rooms] for quarantining”, and had proposed three-month contracts “if they give us a low price” in order to put up 400 people.

El Salvador’s lockdown contrasts with Mexico, which has 11 confirmed cases but has taken no steps to limit gatherings despite US President Donald Trump’s decision to bar flights into the US from Europe.

A large annual banking convention in the Mexican coastal city of Acapulco kicks off on Thursday and the country’s president was due to close the event on Friday.

Philippines president Duterte to test for coronavirus

John Reed reports from Bangkok

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is to undergo testing for Covid-19, his office said on Thursday.

Although Mr Duterte does not have symptoms of the virus, he and Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” T. Go, a close aide, chose to undergo testing “to ensure they are fit and healthy to perform their duties as government workers”.

Salvador Panelo, Mr Duterte’s spokesman, said in a statement:

“They are undertaking this pre-emptive step as per advice of health officials given that they have regularly engaged with Cabinet officials, some of whom have opted to undergo self-quarantine as they were exposed to those infected with Covid-19.”

The 74-year-old Philippine leader, after coming under initial criticism for his government’s handling of the outbreak, on Monday declared a state of public health emergency after a spike in infections, including the first case in the country caused by local transmission.

The Philippines has to date reported 49 confirmed cases and one death from the disease.

US Senate staffer tests positive for coronavirus

Lauren Fedor reports from Washington

A US Senate staffer has tested positive for Covid-19, in the first confirmed coronavirus case on Capitol Hill.

A staff member in the Washington DC office of Maria Cantwell, a Democratic party senator from Washington state, tested positive for the virus, her office said.

The unnamed staffer “has been in isolation since starting to have symptoms,” according to a statement from the senator’s office. Ms Cantwell’s DC office has been closed for “deep cleaning” while the rest of her staff work from home.

The staffer “has had no known contact with the senator or other members of Congress,” the statement said, adding that Ms Cantwell had requested that any of her employees who had “been in contact with the individual and show symptoms” also be tested.

Some Republican lawmakers have decided to self-quarantine after attending the Conservative Political Action Conference, where one attendee was later diagnosed with coronavirus, but no members of Congress have so far tested positive for the virus.

Pentagon bans travel for all military and civilian personnel

Katrina Manson reports from Washington

The Pentagon is banning travel from Friday for all US military and civilian personnel and their families for 60 days to countries under the state department’s highest ‘Level 3’ travel health notice, which include Italy, South Korea, China and Iran.

It is also banning travel for family members to ‘level 2’ countries, which include Singapore, Japan, UK and Bahrain. Anyone returning from one of these countries will also have to stay at home for 14 days, a measure that the Pentagon described as “more stringent” than CDC guidance.

“The Department of Defense’s top priority remains the protection and welfare of our people,” said defence secretary Mark Esper.

Tokyo governor says Olympics will not be cancelled

Kana Inagaki reports from Tokyo

Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo, said there was no possibility of a cancellation to this summer’s Tokyo Olympics despite the World Health Organization classifying the coronavirus outbreak as a global pandemic.

“I can’t say that there will be no impact (to our discussions) and we will need to work closely with the International Olympic Committee,” Ms Koike told reporters on Thursday. “But there is no possibility of a cancellation.”

The governor’s comments came as senior executives at three of Japan’s Olympic sponsors have said privately that the Tokyo Games will probably be postponed because of coronavirus.

Fears of a postponement crystallised on Wednesday when Haruyuki Takahashi, a prominent figure on the Tokyo Organising Committee’s executive board, said in interviews to local and international media that he would propose postponing the event for one to two years in the wake of the disease’s global spread.

Trump cancels travel plans after coronavirus address

Lauren Fedor reports from Washington

Donald Trump has cancelled plans to travel to Colorado and Nevada this week, the White House said on Wednesday night, shortly after the president addressed the nation about the spread of coronavirus and announced a new ban on travel from parts of Europe to the US.

The president had been expected to fly to Nevada on Thursday and attend a fundraiser in Las Vegas and the Republican Jewish Coalition convention, among other events.

Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said the events had been cancelled.

Mr Trump said last week that he did not expect coronavirus to disrupt his campaign rallies, which attract thousands of supporters. But the president has no rallies on his public schedule in the coming weeks.

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the two Democrats vying to take on Mr Trump in November, have also cancelled campaign events in recent days at the advice of public health officials.

Global markets extend losses after US suspends travel from Europe

Global stocks and oil sold off sharply on Thursday after the US temporarily suspended travel from Europe in response to the coronavirus outbreak, triggering a flurry of panic selling that sent US stock futures into a tailspin, write Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong and Richard Henderson in New York.

Japan’s Topix index decisively followed the Dow Jones into a bear market on Thursday with a fall of 4.7 per cent, taking it down more than 20 per cent from its recent peak.

Equities sold off across the Asia-Pacific region with China’s benchmark CSI 300 index of Shanghai- and Shenzhen-listed stocks dropping 1.2 per cent and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng dropping 4.5 per cent. In Sydney the S&P/ASX 200 index tumbled 5.4 per cent.

In Asian trading following the announcement, US futures pointed to another day of heavy losses on Wall Street, with the S&P 500 tipped to open down 4.7 per cent. Overnight the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 5.9 per cent into a bear market, or a 20 per cent fall from its February all-time high.

“Stocks are cratering on the president’s remarks from the White House tonight.” said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist for MUFG Union Bank. “Stock markets around the world are in freefall as the spread of this deadly pandemic virus has the potential to slow the global economy to a crawl.”

Futures trading suggested the FTSE 100 would open 4.1 per cent lower later in the day, while European stocks were set to open 5.6 per cent lower.

Oil prices, which crashed at the start of this week on the prospect of a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, fell on the expectation the travel ban would result in more pain for the travel industry. International benchmark Brent crude was down 6.7 per cent at $33.51 a barrel, while US marker West Texas Intermediate fell 6.6 per cent to $30.79.

Investors sought safety in haven assets on Thursday, driving the 10-year US Treasury yield down 11 basis points to 0.765 per cent.

NBA suspends season over player’s suspected coronavirus

The US National Basketball Association has suspended the season following Wednesday night’s scheduled games after a player appeared to test positive for coronavirus, in the latest sporting casualty of the outbreak.

The NBA said a player on the Utah Jazz team had “preliminarily tested positive for Covid-19” on Wednesday. The Wednesday night game between the Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder was cancelled following the news, which arrived just before the game was set to begin. The player was not present at the game.

The NBA said it would “use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic”.

Korea civil servant cases spark worries despite drop in infection rate

Edward White and Kang Buseong report from Seoul

New coronavirus cases at Sejong, South Korea’s main government complex, have raised fears of an outbreak among civil servants, despite the country’s broader infection rate showing signs of falling further.

Officials said about 10 government employees had been infected in Sejong, 130km south of Seoul, and houses tens of thousands of workers and more than 30 government ministries.

South Korea reported 114 new confirmed infections on Thursday, a drop of more than 50 per cent from a day earlier and the lowest number of new cases since February 21.

The result marked a positive development for health officials after the discovery of a large cluster of infections at a call centre reversed four straight days of declining new cases on Wednesday and dented optimism in South Korea that the outbreak was under control.

South Korea now has 7,869 coronavirus cases with the majority of cases in Daegu, the country’s fourth-biggest city.

To combat the outbreak, Seoul has focused on a programme of mass public testing – with more than 200,000 tests administered – as well as social distancing with schools and universities closed and many office workers working from home.

The death rate from the virus has remained below 1 per cent despite one of the world’s highest infection tallies outside of China.

Tom Hanks tests positive for coronavirus in Australia

Primrose Riordan reports from Hong Kong

Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson have tested positive for coronavirus while in Australia, the actor said in an Instagram post on Thursday morning.

“We felt a bit tired, like we had colds, and some body aches. Rita had some chills that came and went. Slight fevers too,” he said. “To play things right, as is needed in the world right now, we were tested for the coronavirus, and were found to be positive.”

Mr Hanks has been on Queensland’s Gold Coast filming Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic. Both Mr Hanks and Ms Wilson are 63.

China reports lowest new coronavirus case count since January

Health authorities in China reported 15 new cases of coronavirus on Wednesday, down from 24 a day earlier and the lowest tally since Beijing started reporting nationwide figures in January.

Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak in the country, reported eight new cases, while there were six cases reported among people with recent travel histories outside China. Wednesday’s tally takes the overall figure for mainland China to 80,793.

There were 11 new deaths linked to the virus, taking the total number of fatalities to 3,169.

Trump imposes 30-day travel ban from Europe to US

Demetri Sevastopulo reports from Washington

President Donald Trump said he would suspend all travel from Europe to the US for the next 30 days to reduce the further spread of coronavirus cases in America.

Mr Trump was speaking hours after the World Health Organization said the outbreak was a “pandemic”.

The number of cases of infected patients in the US has spiked to as many as 1,281. He said the new travel restrictions would take effect from Friday.

“We are marshalling the full power of the federal government and private sector to protect the American people,” Mr Trump said. “We are responding with great speed and professionalism.”

Uber encourages office staff to work from home

Dave Lee reports from San Francisco

Uber has become the latest tech firm to send home its employees. Staff at its offices in the US, Canada, Europe, Japan and South Korea have all been “strongly encouraged” to no longer come in, a spokesman confirmed to the Financial Times.

The company’s drivers, however, are still on the road. Any affected by the illness have been offered up to 14 days of financial assistance, the company said, but only if they are diagnosed with Covid-19 or quarantined by public health officials. In these cases, the driver’s account is suspended for the 14-day period. He would not say how many had been suspended so far.

US senator Mark Warner wrote to Uber and other “gig economy” firms this week demanding accommodations be made for sick workers who typically receive few benefits due to their classification as contractors rather than employees.

Mr Warner has also requested the Department of Labor collect more data on the plight of those losing incomes. “Gig workers – and contingent workers more broadly – are likely the most vulnerable workers to a potential spread of the coronavirus,” Mr Warner said in a letter shared on Wednesday.

“As a consequence [of not having health insurance], they’re not likely to follow the CDC’s coronavirus recommendations. They may not go to the doctor when they are sick for lack of insurance and they may not stay home due to loss of income.”

Australia announces $11bn stimulus to counter coronavirus hit

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

Australia launched a A$17bn ($11bn) stimulus package on Thursday in a bid to prevent the spread of the coronavirus from plunging its economy into recession for the first time in almost three decades.

The measures include a cash payment of up to A$750 for almost 6.5m pensioners, people receiving welfare benefits and low-income families to encourage household spending and tax breaks for businesses.

Canberra also agreed to fast-track welfare payments for casual workers, who may have to self-isolate or cannot go to work because of the spread of virus.

The cash splash, which will be frontloaded with A$11bn spent before the end of June, forced prime minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government to admit it would not deliver on its electoral promise to deliver a budget surplus in 2019-20.

Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s treasurer, said the money would begin flowing from March 31 and is expected to add up to 1.5 per cent to gross domestic product in the second quarter.

He said it remained unclear what impact the virus would have on growth and whether a recession could be avoided, as this depends on how the coronavirus spreads over coming months.

“The package is designed to support confidence, to encourage investment, and to keep Australians in a job,” Mr Frydenberg said.

The total impact of the stimulus package over the next three years is estimated to be worth A$22bn, equivalent to 1.2 per cent of GDP.

Australia has enjoyed a record 29-year run without experiencing a recession, in part due to the phenomenal growth of China, its largest trading partner.

But the widespread shutdown of business in China following the rapid spread of coronavirus in January and February is causing a painful slowdown in Australia, which is predicted to report an economic contraction in the first quarter.

S&P and Westpac have forecast the Australian economy will move into recession by June 2020.

Asia stocks slip after WHO labels outbreak a pandemic

Alice Woodhouse reports from Hong Kong

Asia-Pacific stock markets slid on Thursday following sharp falls on Wall Street after the World Health Organization labelled the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic for the first time.

In WHO terms, a pandemic means the disease is spreading rapidly in several different parts of the world. The WHO designation came on Wednesday as the number of cases surged to 118,000 in 114 countries, with 4,291 deaths.

The Topix was down 2.4 per cent in early trading in Japan while the Kospi slipped 1 per cent. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 fell 2.8 per cent

The moves in Asia come after the Dow in the US tumbled 5.9 per cent, taking it to a fall of more than 20 per cent from a recent high, making it a bear market. The S&P 500 shed 4.9 per cent to end just short of a bear market.

S&P 500 futures were down 0.4 per cent. So-called haven the Japanese yen was steady and gold was 0.6 per cent higher at $1,644 and ounce, while the yield on the 10-year US Treasury was hovering at 0.8377 per cent.

Coronavirus latest: Oil price crash sends shockwaves through financial markets


Royal College of Physicians delays conference until January

Clive Cookson, science editor, reports:

The UK Royal College of Physicians has postponed its annual conference from next month to January 2021, “so that doctors can concentrate on looking after patients with Covid-19 and avoid putting themselves at any increased risk from the virus”.

Andrew Goddard, president of the London-based body that aims to improve the practice of medicine, said:

It simply wouldn’t be sensible to bring together hundreds of doctors from all over the UK and other countries too, when they are already stretched, dealing with Covid-19 on top of all the other pressures on the NHS.

Energy-exposed ETFs take severe hit

Anna Gross in London

A number of exchange traded funds (ETFs) — index-tracking funds that can be traded on exchanges just like a stock — exposed to volatility in sectors such as oil and energy in the wake of an oil price war and coronavirus fears, have taken a severe hit since Friday.

JKO’s S&P GSCI Brent Crude fund shed nearly 42 per cent of its value over the past two trading days. Meanwhile the Australia-based OOO AU crude oil fund fell about 33 per cent. Several ETFs that track the S&P GSCI index slipped between 20 to 30 per cent.

Israeli funds feature heavily among the most affected funds. The Tachlit DJ Internet Composite, which is registered on the Tel Aviv stock exchange and tracks the performance of companies involved in internet-related activities, fell about 32 per cent, while another that tracks stocks on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange 35 Index, is down by the same amount. A third Israeli ETF that tracks the S&P aerospace and defence index is down 29.4 per cent.

Invesco’s RDXS LN Equity index, which is registered in Ireland and tracks the Russian Depositary Index, is down 20 per cent.

Health monitoring body calls for at least $8bn to boost response

The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, an independent health monitoring and advocacy body, is calling for the immediate injection of at least $8bn new funding to bolster the collective Covid-19 response, writes Clive Cookson, science editor.

Although the World Bank last week committed up to $12bn support for Covid-19 response at country level and the IMF announced a $50bn package for mitigating economic damage, the GPMB says these announcements still leave a critical funding gap of $8bn.

Gro Harlem Brundtland and Elhadj As Sy, co-chairs of the GPMB, said in a joint statement:

It is clear that the prospect of a pandemic with multiple waves is increasing. This is impacting every level of society, placing enormous pressure on emergency healthcare, disrupting supply chains of vital medicines, resulting in businesses and schools closing. The outbreak is on course to cause economic losses greater than those of Sars, Ebola, Mers, and Zika combined.

The GPMB calculates that the most important gaps are:

• $2bn for vaccine development
• $1.5bn for research and development of treatments
• $1bn to support the World Health Organization emergency response
• $1bn for distributed vaccine manufacture and delivery
• $1bn for manufacture and delivery of treatments and diagnostics
• $750m for stockpiling vaccines and essential protective equipment (gloves, masks)
• $500m for diagnostics development
• $250m to strengthen unmet needs in regional surveillance and control

Junk bond prices tumble as problems mount for energy groups

Joe Rennison, Capital Markets Reporter, writes:

Junk bond prices have plummeted today, as an unfolding oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia hit energy companies already facing issues from the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Pain in the market centered on oil and natural gas companies, as Brent crude sank 22 per cent to around $35 per barrel on Monday morning, it’s lowest price since January 2016, when an oil price rout ended the era of $100-oil.

The cost of insuring against the default of high-yield bonds soared to 606 basis points, surpassing its peak during the last period of turmoil for energy debt in 2016, according to data from IHS Markit. Investment-grade default protection shot up to 125 basis point, its highest level since 2011.

BlackRock iShares high-yield bond exchange traded fund, known by its ticker HYG, sank 4.5 per cent in pre-market trading, its lowest price since the end of 2018.

“We are on the cusp of a new round of energy company restructurings, both in- and out-of-court,” said John Dixon, a high yield bond trader at Dinosaur Securities.

With many of these companies already spending more than cash flow, look for draconian cutbacks in capital expenditure which will further crimp already distressed servicers and suppliers.

French airport boss tests positive for virus

David Keohane in Paris reports:

The chief executive of French airport group ADP, Augustin de Romanet, has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Mr de Romanet, who is the first CEO of a major French company to say they have contracted the virus, tested positive on Saturday.

In a statement, ADP said that his “state of health is of no concern and does not prevent him from continuing to exercise his functions” but that he “he will stay at his home for 14 days.”

The group is investigating with whom Mr Romanet might have come into recent contact.

ADP, the operator of Paris Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, recently agreed to buy India’s GMR Airports for €1.3bn and remains a potential privatisation candidate for Emmanuel Macron’s French government, which owns about half of the group.

Fed ramps up repo operation offering $150bn in overnight loans

Colby Smith in New York

The Federal Reserve increased the amount of money it is injecting into overnight lending markets this week, amid a global sell-off in stocks and a rush into safe haven assets that sent government bond yields tumbling.

On Monday, the New York-arm of the US central bank said it will boost the size of its overnight and and short-term operations for the repo market, where investors borrow cash for short periods in exchange for high-quality collateral like treasuries, through March 12.

The Fed will offer at least $150bn in overnight loans, a $50bn increase from what was originally on offer. It will also raise the limit on the amount of cash it will lend into the market over a two-week period from at least $20bn to at least $45bn.

The increase came as crude prices crashed by more than 20 per cent on Monday, after Saudi Arabia launched a price war, which threatens to flood the oil market with supplies just as the coronavirus outbreak hits demand. The sell-off in oil sent stock markets plunging and government bond yields to fresh record lows.

Jumia delists hundreds of products after price gouging complaints

Jumia, the pan-African ecommerce giant, has delisted nearly 400 products from 168 sellers of hand sanitiser and face masks in its biggest market Nigeria, after complaints of price gouging from federal authorities, writes Neil Munshi in Lagos.

The Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission announced the move by the company known as the Amazon of Africa, as it moves to curb price rises related to the coronavirus outbreak.

https://twitter.com/fccpcnigeria/status/1236974507614707712

The agency included excerpts of a letter from Jumia, which said that it would be conducting hourly checks on price gouging for products related to the outbreak.

The company also said that it had identified a seller from whom it can source directly and has formed a partnership with Reckitt Benckiser to offer reduced prices on hand sanitiser on the ecommerce platform, from which Jumia will take no commission.

And where it has spread

Steve Bernard‘s maps show the geographic reach of the disease:

Daily tally of virus spread

More than 110,000 people worldwide have been diagnosed with the Covid-19 infection, with China where the outbreak began by far the worst affected.

More than 3,000 deaths have been recorded in Hubei province, the Chinese region the virus was first detected in December. In Italy deaths soared over the weekend and, with a tally of 366, it is the worst hit outside China.

Steve Bernard in London has collated the latest daily cases of the coronavirus:

Swiss-Italian border closed for non-essential travel

Sam Jones in Zurich reports

The Swiss-Italian border has been closed to all travellers except commuters needing to reach places of work and goods traffic, the Swiss government has announced.

Italian and Swiss authorities began on Monday to set up additional control and security points along the ordinarily-porous border the two countries share.

Those wishing to cross will have to provide official proof of their work and its location.

“For all other activities, the Italian authorities have issued severe restrictions. Consequently, the Swiss and residents of Switzerland are asked not to travel to the regions concerned,” the Swiss Federal Council said in a statement.

Around 80,000 Italians cross into Switzerland each day to work according to Swiss federal statistics.

It is unclear how the new checks will effect ease of travel: crossings are limited to a small number of choke points through narrow valleys, such as the main border point at Chiasso, just north of lake Como.

Switzerland currently has 332 confirmed cases of the virus. Two Swiss citizens have died so far, according to the federal office of public health.

The country’s cantonal authorities and employers are already ramping up preparations for a significant worsening of the situation. The canton of Schaffhausen deployed its civil defence force on Monday to help triage potential patients at hospitals.

Google has meanwhile told all 4,000 of its employees in Zurich to work from home.

European airline shares outperform wider index

European airlines outperform the benchmark index, with shares in Ryanair scraping some gains on Monday to be one of the few Stoxx 600 members to rise, buoyed by the prospect of lower oil prices this year.

The Dublin-based low-cost airline, with its stock up about 0.4 per cent on Monday, outperformed the 6 per cent slide on the wider index. The Irish airline squeaked in a second-day advance, rebounding from a deep sell-off that began in earnest on February 24. That day its stock recorded a 13.5 per cent drop, which was its worst one-day slide since June 2016.

Other airline stocks joined Ryanair among the Stoxx 600 index’s better performers. Frankfurt-listed Lufthansa fell 2.7 per cent, easyJet slid about 3 per cent while British Airways owner International Airlines Group slipped 4 per cent. Air France-KLM shed 4 per cent.

Oil prices fell as much as 30 per cent on Monday after Saudi Arabia failed to reach an agreement with Russia over cutting supply in response to the coronavirus outbreak and said it would discount its crude and increase output.

Airline shares have been buffeted by concerns over the impact of the coronavirus, which has prompted flights to be cancelled and experts to predict the industry will lose more than $100bn in revenues this year.

EU-India summit cancelled on virus fears

Michael Peel in Brussels reports:

A high-profile EU-India summit scheduled this week has been cancelled because of the coronavirus and Nato has announced its first case, in the latest escalation of the outbreak’s impact on international institutions in Brussels.

The 27-member EU said on Monday that the meeting due to take place on Friday between its leaders and Narendra Modi, India’s premier, in the Belgian capital had been postponed by mutual consent because “both parties need to be focused on combating the disease”.

The European bloc said the two sides would look for a new date to meet “as early as possible”.

Nato, the 29-member military alliance based on the outskirts of Brussels, said on Monday that an employee had tested positive for the virus after returning from holiday in northern Italy and exhibiting fever-like symptoms at the end of last week.

“The staff member is currently at home in self-isolation,” the alliance said. “Within minutes of receiving the result, all the immediate work colleagues were informed. They had been working from home at the end of last week and continue to do so.”

Nato added that it had taken wider measures to curb the virus’s spread, including temporary suspension of some travel, encouraging staff to work from home, and temporary suspension of group visits to alliance headquarters.

Brussels weighing all options to support European economy

Jim Brunsden in Brussels reports:

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that Brussels is exploring all available options for mitigating the impact of the virus.

“The spread of the virus has a vast impact, it also has a vast impact on the economy,” Ms von der Leyen told reporters in Brussels.

“We are looking into everything we can do in order to address the impacts on the economy,” she said.

Ms von der Leyen said that two main options are available to Brussels. The first is to be flexible in how it applies state-aid and budget rules, enabling authorities to do more to shore up their economies. The second is to provide financial support.

“The one is flexibility and the other one is money, indeed, and the Commission is in close contact of course with national authorities, with industry representatives and other stakeholders,” said Ms von der Leyen.

Brussels is also preparing for a meeting of EU finance ministers next week, she said, adding that she is in close contact with ECB president Christine Lagarde.

Spanish cases double overnight

Daniel Dombey in Madrid reports

The number of cases of coronavirus in Spain has more than doubled in 24 hours, rising to 999* on Monday, up from 469 cases the day before.

In Madrid, the country’s most affected region, the incidence of the virus has also doubled since Sunday, up to 436 cases from 202.

Dr Fernando Simón, the doctor coordinating the country’s response, said that, as of first thing on Monday morning, he knew of 16 people who had died of the virus throughout the country.

But the full figure is likely to be higher, because of additional deaths during the day.

“We have to acknowledge that there is local transmission [of the virus] in Spain, although it is limited,” Dr Simón said. “So it is logical that some countries put Spain on a list of [regions] at risk of local transmission.”

He added that his team would meet Madrid authorities to see if there was a need of additional measures in the region.

Separately, the Basque town of Vitoria has announced that all educational institutions – from kindergartens to universities – will be closed for 15 days in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus in the region, where there have been 149 cases.

*Spanish authorities updated this figure to 999 around midday. Earlier in the morning they had reported 904 cases.

Iranian cases pass 7,000

Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran reports:

Iran’s health ministry said on Monday that 7,161 people had now tested positive for the coronavirus — up from 6,566 on Sunday.

Of those infected, the ministry said 237 people had died. The number of fatalities stood at 194 yesterday.

Iran has suffered the third most deaths globally from the virus — after China and Italy — and has the fourth highest number of confirmed cases — after China, South Korea and Italy.

Nigeria confirms its second case

Neil Munshi in Lagos reports:

Nigeria has confirmed its second case of coronavirus, as the spread of the disease remains slow thus far in Africa’s largest country.

The patient is one of sixty people who had contact with Nigeria’s first case — an Italian who flew in to Lagos last month — who have been in isolation since authorities tracked them down, the health minister said in a statement on Monday.

The man has not shown any symptoms, but was tested along with other contacts currently in isolation. Scientists confirmed his diagnosis on Sunday.

The news came after a team of researchers from Nigeria announced that it had sequenced the genome of the coronavirus carried by the Italian and confirmed it as a match to the strain spreading in Italy and Wuhan.

Portuguese president self-isolates for two weeks

Peter Wise in Lisbon reports:

The president of Portugal has opted to isolate himself and suspend official duties for 14 days after a school student whose fellow pupils visited the presidential place was confirmed as having the coronavirus.

A statement issued by the office of Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said he had decided to cancel all his public engagements including foreign visits for two weeks while his health was monitored at home. The president has shown no symptoms and was expected to be tested for the Covid-19 virus later on Monday.

At a time when Portuguese citizens are showing a high degree of civic maturity regarding the virus outbreak, the president believes he should set an example of robust preventive measures that will at the same allow him to continue working at his private residence.

The pupil from a school in Felgueiras in northern Portugal was not himself in the class that Mr Rebelo da Sousa welcomed last Tuesday. All schools, swimming pools, libraries and nursery schools have been closed in the area where the school is located.

A total of 30 cases of the Corvid-19 virus have so far been confirmed in Portugal, according to the Director General of Health.

Paris-based luxury stocks slide on heightened risks in Europe

Shares in French luxury goods makers took a hammering as the coronavirus outbreak worsened in the prosperous north of Italy, prompting the government to impose a lockdown on the 16m people who live there.

LVMH shares on Monday, down 6 per cent in midmorning Paris trading, were on track for their worst percentage slide since October 2018. Kering shares dropped about 7 per cent, while Prada fell 7.5 per cent. Milan-listed Moncler fell more than 9 per cent. Paris’s wider Cac40 fell 7 per cent.

Jefferies analysts see the personal luxury goods market falling by at least 3 per cent this year “as the speed and magnitude of first-half contraction is unlikely to be fully recovered in what we still expect to be a relatively buoyant second half/fourth quarter”.

“This is not as bad as 2008-09,” the analysts said in a note published on Monday, “but is having a proportionate impact due to the much greater role played by the Chinese cluster”.

They said the drop in Europe will “last longer and be just as harmful”.

Italy, the worst affected European country, has taken drastic steps to contain the outbreak as deaths soared over the weekend. The government imposed a lockdown on part of the north, an important region for the luxury and fashion industries. Italy’s death toll has risen to 366.

China has increased in importance for the global luxury and fashion industries. Chinese shoppers accounted for about 40 per cent of the €281bn spent on luxury goods globally last year, according to Jefferies, but drove 80 per cent of the growth, powering sales increases at companies such as LVMH and Kering.

Where things stand

Oil prices tumbled as much as 30 per cent after Saudi Arabia failed to reach an agreement with Russia over cutting supply in response to the coronavirus outbreak and said it would discount its crude and ramp up output.

The slide in oil has prompted equity markets to drop sharply:

• London’s FTSE 100 fell 7 per cent to put it on track for its worst day since the 2008-09 financial crisis.
• Germany’s Dax and France’s Cac 40 were both down 6 per cent.
• Futures trade suggested a 5 per cent slide on the S&P 500 when Wall Street opens.

Shares in oil producers have been the hardest hit with majors Total, BP and Royal Dutch Shell on track for their worst ever day of trading.

The currencies of oil producing countries were also hit hard, with the Russian rouble, Norwegian krone, Canadian dollar and Mexican peso all weakening substantially. The krone was down 4.7 per cent at one point at its lowest level against the dollar since 1985.

In bond markets, the 10-year US Treasury yield tumbled down through 0.5 per cent to a record low in the sharpest rally for American sovereign debt in more than a decade.

France urges Europe to coordinate its response to virus outbreak

David Keohane in Paris reports:

The French finance minister has urged Europe to come up with a “massive” economic stimulus plan as the continent grapples with the effects of the coronavirus and France’s growth estimates fall.

Bruno Le Maire said on Monday he expected a “strong, massive and coordinated response from Europe” to avoid the risk of an economic crisis.

As tourism numbers fall and the economic impact spreads, Mr Le Maire told radio station France Info that the virus could prompt the French growth rate to fall beneath 1 per cent this year, from a previous estimate of 1.3 per cent. Nineteen infected with the virus have died in France and more than 1,200 cases recorded, making it the worst affected European country after Italy.

The benchmark Cac40 stock index fell more than 6 per cent in mid-morning in Paris trading.

Mr Le Maire’s intervention comes as the Banque de France said the French economy will expand 0.1 per cent this quarter, compared with a previous estimate of 0.3 per cent.

“This slowdown is potentially severe but temporary,” said the governor of the Banque de France.

“Faced with this exceptional situation, we must have our eyes wide open but keep a cool head,” François Villeroy de Galhauhe added.

The economy will continue to have abundant liquidity… our main economic risk in the long term would be to move from the vigilance that is required to a series of overreactions that would freeze the country.

After Italy locked down the north of the country to slow the spread of the virus, France on Sunday banned indoor gatherings of more than 1,000 people, lifted caps on overtime for hospital workers and made it easier for people to consult doctors online.

Mr Le Maire encouraged “companies to declare themselves in partial activity”, adding that the government would “would stand by them”.

The government said local elections due to kick off on Sunday will go ahead.

North Sea oil producer shares under heavy selling pressure

Donato Paolo Mancini in London reports

London-listed oil companies exposed to the North Sea were among the biggest losers on Monday amid the oil price war and compounding woes surrounding fears of a recession caused by the global spread of coronavirus.

Premier Oil’s share price more than halved, shedding 57 per cent and reaching a price of 26.08p a share — a low not seen since the early 2000s, giving it a market cap of £210m. In earlier trade it slipped more than 70 per cent.

EnQuest shed 19 per cent, plunging to lows not seen since 2016 and to a market cap of £247m. Africa-focused Tullow Oil, another FTSE 250 producer, shed 42 per cent before paring back losses to 37 per cent, reaching a market cap of about £209m.

Companies in the sector have faced a delicate recovery after the 2014-2016 crash, when oil prices tanked, dragging companies in the sector lower. The latest oil crisis looks set to be the ultimate test of their resilience after the whole industry emerged from that crisis, working to cut costs and return to profitability amid lower oil prices.

A recent history of oil price falls

Investors braced for global downturn, Sentix survey shows

Martin Arnold in Frankfurt reports:

Investors are bracing themselves for a sharp downturn in the global economy due to the disruption of coronavirus, which they believe will trigger a deep recession in much of Europe, Asia and Latin America, a report revealed.

The Sentix survey of investors on Monday recorded its steepest monthly fall on record in its sentiment indicator for the eurozone economy, which was down by 22.3 points to minus 17.1, its lowest level since the bloc’s sovereign debt crisis in 2013.

Fear of coronavirus contagion has caused Italy to impose a quarantine on much of its prosperous industrial north, which contains a quarter of the country’s population and produces a third of its gross domestic product. Meanwhile school closures, event cancellations and travel restrictions on workers are starting to hurt tourism, airlines and leisure companies across Europe and Asia.

“The global spread of the new coronavirus is plunging the world economy into recession,” said Manfred Hübner, the managing director of German-based Sentix. “Never before have economic data from Sentix collapsed so sharply in all regions of the world within a month.”

Investor sentiment declined sharply for all regions, according to Sentix, which surveyed 1,155 last week. Investors were most pessimistic about the outlook for Latin America, the eurozone and Japan, while being relatively upbeat on the US.

Oil markets plummeted on Monday in response to fears of a Saudi-Russia price war, as stock markets suffered their biggest drop since the 2008 financial crisis and US sovereign bond yields set record lows as they fell closer to zero.

Economists have been rushing to slash their growth forecasts for the eurozone economy ahead of the European Central Bank’s rate-setting meeting on Thursday.

“The world is facing a medical emergency that monetary and fiscal policy cannot fix,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist of Berenberg. “The situation will settle down once we have more clarity about the future course of the disease. Until then, we face serious downside risks.”

Mr Schmieding forecast eurozone GDP would fall 0.4 per cent in the first quarter, 0.5 per cent in the second quarter, while recovering slightly later in the year to end 2020 down 0.1 per cent overall.

More than a billion shares have traded hands in Europe

Trading activity has been aggressive so far today, with more than a billion shares in big European companies having already traded hands.

Volume on the Stoxx 600 index was already above one billion by 9am London time, more than three times the average for that time of day over the past 180 days, according to Bloomberg data.

The high trading volume comes as equities bourses across Europe have come under heavy pressure. The Stoxx 600 was down 5 per cent in recent dealings, with markets in London, Frankfurt, Paris and Milan all tumbling.

Lex: busts to show folly of last reboot

The largest industry subsector among US junk-rated companies is energy, write the FT’s Lex columnists.

This latest body blow will lead to more sector bankruptcies in the US where the numbers had already ticked up in 2019.

Fresh capital, and debt in particular, kept flocking to cash-guzzling companies, many of them shale oil producers, after the price implosion of 2015 and 2016.

Wall Street must finally, after this latest bust cycle, come to grips with the US energy sector’s fundamental inability to carry mountains of loans and bonds.

There will be no shortage of capital standing ready to recapitalise the energy sector, but the timing of rescue financings is crucial.

Read more on this story here

Demand for oil seen shrinking for first time in 11 years, IEA says

Anjli Raval, senior energy correspondent, writes:

Oil demand is expected to contract this year for the first time since 2009 as the coronavirus outbreak spreads beyond Asia and Europe and hits the global economy, the International Energy Agency said on Monday.

For the first time since the global financial crisis, demand is expected to fall year-on-year, by 90,000 barrels a day to just under 100m b/d, amid major disruptions to travel and trade.

This compares to earlier expectations for growth – from major oil companies and global energy agencies – of well over 1m b/d and the IEA’s February forecast of expansion of 825,000 b/d in 2020.

The level of revision, is “unprecedented”, said Fatih Birol who heads the IEA. “This situation seems to have no equal in the oil market’s history. There is a massive supply overhang and significant demand shock at the same time.”

The Paris-based energy body said in its monthly oil market report: “The situation remains fluid, creating an extraordinary degree of uncertainty over what the full global impact of the virus will be.”

Producer countries led by Opec and Russia were expected to enact cuts to stabilise the market. But Moscow’s failure to comply with a Saudi Arabia-led proposal for additional supply curbs saw a three-year alliance collapse.

As Saudi Arabia embarked upon a price war in response, oil prices plummeted on Monday – falling by 30 per cent – the biggest daily fall since the Gulf War in the early 1990s.

The IEA noted a visible decline in transport, industrial and commercial activity leading to a “massive drop” in quarterly global oil demand and an expected annual decline.

China accounted for more than 80 per cent of global oil demand growth in 2019, highlighting how central the Asian economy is for propping up the oil market, producer economies and the crude price.

In the IEA’s worst-case scenario, which assumes that countries hit by the virus recover more slowly while the epidemic spreads further beyond Europe and Asia, global oil demand could decline by 730,000 b/d in 2020.

Italy to use ‘massive shock therapy’ to curb impact of virus

Davide Ghiglione in Rome writes:

Giuseppe Conte said Italy will further increase spending in a “massive shock therapy” to tackle the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the economy.

“We will not stop here,” said the Italian prime minister said in an interview with La Repubblica newspaper. “We will use a massive shock therapy. To come out of this emergency we will use all human and economic resources.”

Mr Conte added: “Europe cannot think of dealing with such an extraordinary situation with ordinary measures.”

He did not give further details on the measures. He said he would meet members of the opposition within the next 48 hours to discuss them.

“Support measures will be adequate to the difficult circumstances and aimed at preventing lasting damage to the supply side of the Italian economy and permanent employment losses,” said Roberto Gualtieri, Italy’s economy minister, in a statement. “Smart working arrangements will be used wherever possible and preventive measures will be adopted to protect the health of employees in the workplace.”

Mr Gualtieri said that “the economic measures that are in the works will be vigorous, commensurate to current needs, but temporary”.

The government announced last week a €7.5 bn stimulus package to tackle the impact of coronavirus on the economy, and it requested parliament’s approval for an increase in the deficit ceiling for 2020 in order to finance such measures.

“Along with this request, the government reiterated its commitment to returning to a fiscal consolidation and debt-reduction path as soon as the epidemic and its economic fallout are overcome. Finally, the government will spare no effort to ensure that a package of measures is agreed at the EU level in coordination with the whole international community,” Mr Gualtieri said.

Oil majors headed for worst ever day

Shares in European oil majors have plunged on Saudi Arabia’s threat to flood the market, with BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Total all on track for their worst ever day of trading.

BP fell 20 per cent shortly after the open, while Shell was down 22 per cent. In Paris, Total slipped 13 per cent after a delayed open.

Mid-cap producers were hit even harder, with Premier Oil down a whopping 72 per cent. Tullow Oil shed 48 per cent. Oilfield services groups Wood and Weir were down 23 per cent and 18 per cent respectively.

Brent crude, the international oil marker, was recently down 21 per cent at $31.75 a barrel. Earlier it fell more than 30 per cent.

European stocks slide into bear market

Europe’s major stock markets plunged into bear market territory in the opening minutes of trading on Monday.

A collapse in the price of oil has followed two weeks of intense market turmoil caused by escalating concerns over the economic impact of the coronavirus. The Stoxx Europe 600, which tracks the region’s largest companies, has now fallen more than 20 per cent from the highs it hit in mid-February, and was recently 6.5 per cent lower on the day.

“The plunge in oil has led to complete capitulation in other markets this morning,” said Jim Reid, a strategist at Deutsche Bank.

Buckle up for the US ride, advises Katie Martin

European credit markets are taking this badly. If this is a taste of what’s to come from the more oily US market, then buckle up, writes Katie Martin in London.

Europe’s iTraxx Crossover index, which reflects the perceived risk of defaults by European companies with low credit ratings, has leapt to 502 basis points, up by around 120 from Friday’s close.

Here’s Rob Smith and Joe Rennison explaining how this works and why it matters on Friday.

Iranian MPs call for quarantine of northern province of Mazandaran

Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran reports

Members of parliament from Mazandaran have called on President Hassan Rouhani to quarantine the northern province as shortages of medical equipment have rung alarm bells and fuelled a rise in casualties.

This comes after Gilan, another northern province along the Caspian Sea, is reported to be struggling with severe shortages of face masks, gowns and hospital beds leading to infection and deaths of doctors and nurses, according to domestic media.

Tents have been set up in the courtyards of some hospitals in northern provinces while some unconfirmed reports suggest many patients are not admitted due to lack of beds.

Ali Mohammad Shaeri, a representative of members of parliament from Mazandaran province, urged Mr Rouhani to announce “a crisis situation” and closure of all restaurants, beaches and rental properties.

Official figures so far suggest 6,566 people have tested positive, 194 of whom died. But members of parliament from some of the worst hit provinces have said the casualties in their constituencies show the official number of deaths is understated.

Videos on social media show people from Mazandaran and Gilan provinces have spontaneously decided to block the roads — after the traffic police re-opened them under pressure from travellers — fueling public concerns about clashes between provinces.

EmoticonEuropean markets tumble at the open

London’s FTSE 100 fell at least 8 per cent as European markets plunged at the open, the London index’s biggest drop since 2008. Germany’s Dax was 7.5 per cent lower.

The opening of many European shares was delayed as market makers tried to price the sudden shock of the collapse in oil prices, and comes amid significant market volatility born out of the rolling economic disruption caused by the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Two-year gilt yield falls into negative territory

UK two-year gilt yields dropped into negative territory for the first time as investors sought the relative safety of UK debt amid intensifying fears over the coronavirus impact.

The yield on the short-term gilt fell 11 basis points to minus 0.02 per cent on Monday. Yields move inversely to prices.

Oil producer currencies knocked

The currencies of oil producing countries have come under heavy pressure this morning after international benchmark Brent tumbled by almost a third.

• The Russian rouble fell 7 per cent to Rbs74 to the dollar, its weakest since January 2016.
• Norway’s krone was down 3.1 per cent at NKr9.6. Earlier it fell as much as 4.7 per cent to its lowest level against the US currency since 1985.
• The Canadian dollar and Mexican peso each fell to roughly three-year lows against the dollar – down 1.4 per cent at C$1.36 and 6.7 per cent at 21.5 pesos respectively.

“In economic terms, the major oil exporters will all suffer an unwelcome additional brake to growth,” said Kit Juckes, at Société Génerale. He added:

Oil is a significant driver of GDP in Mexico, Norway, Canada, Russia, Brazil and Colombia and of course, the US is the world’s biggest oil producer in absolute terms now. None of those countries’ currencies is going to have a good day, though the dollar does still derive support from its reserve currency status.

US government bonds in biggest rally since 2009

US sovereign debt has rallied sharply as the collapse in oil prices and intensifying concerns over the coronavirus outbreak sends investors piling into havens.

The benchmark 10-year Treasury yield dropped 0.375 percentage point to 0.36 per cent, marking a new record low borrowing cost for American sovereign debt. Debt at other maturities has also rallied in price, with yields on two and 30-year Treasuries falling sharply.

Across the Atlantic, bonds considered to be shelters during times of market tumult also rallied. The 10-year German Bund yield dropped 0.126 percentage point to minus 0.845 per cent — also a historic low.

Investors have raced into the perceived safety of US and German government debt over past few weeks as riskier asset markets, like equities, have faced severe ructions.

The US 10-year yield has dropped 1.5 percentage points so far in 2020, the heaviest fall since the global financial crisis in 2008. The move has come as the Federal Reserve has already cut overnight borrowing costs by half a percentage point in the biggest reduction since the crisis.

Investors have said further action may be necessary from the Fed and other central banks as they attempt to buttress the global economy.

Italian bonds drop as coronavirus impact takes hold

Italy’s sovereign bonds fell as the coronavirus impact tightened its grip on the country’s northern economic powerhouse.

The yield on the 10-year, which moves inversely to the price, rose 0.264 percentage points to 1.34 per cent, their highest since January 22. The two-year yield rose 0.39 percentage points to 0.43 per cent.

That pushed the spread between the safer 10-year German Bund yield and its Italian counterpart to 2.17 percentage points up from 1.81 percentage points at the end of last week. The widening gap indicated that investors are fleeing the riskier Italian asset to the perceived safety of Germany securities. The yield on the German benchmark 10-year Bund fell to a record minus 0.834 per cent.

Italy’s death toll from the virus soared over the weekend. The latest toll of 366 deaths makes Italy the worst affected country after China.

North Korea flies out foreigners after coronavirus quarantine

By Song Jung-a in Seoul

More than 60 foreigners who were quarantined for more than a month in Pyongyang were allowed to leave the country on a special flight on Monday as North Korea faces the increasing risk of a coronavirus outbreak.

An Air Koryo flight carried the diplomats and other foreigners on the country’s first commercial flight to leave North Korea and landed in Russia’s far eastern city of Vladivostok on Monday, according to NK News and flight tracking site FlightAware.

North Korea, yet to report any confirmed case of Covid-19, placed about 10,000 people under quarantine to prevent the virus outbreak. Nearly 40 per cent of them have been released from quarantine, according to North Korean media reports.

North Korea acted swiftly to close borders as reports of the virus emerged from Wuhan in January. Pyongyang imposed tougher quarantine measures on foreigners. About 380 foreigners were placed under quarantine for about a month and 221 of them have been released after North Korea lifted the restrictions last week.

“Sad to say farewell this morning to colleagues from German Embassy and French Office #North Korea which are closing temporarily,” tweeted Colin Crooks, the British ambassador to Pyongyang. He added that the British embassy would remain open although other embassies in Pyongyang were temporarily closing.

“I have never been happier standing on Kim Il Sung Square,” Swedish ambassador Joachim Bergstrom tweeted last week with a selfie.

North Korea has banned foreign tourists and sharply reduced trade with China, calling its fight against the virus a matter of “national existence”. Experts have warned that the country was particularly vulnerable given its poor public health system.

Russia to sell forex reserves amid rouble slump

Max Seddon in Moscow reports:

The rouble fell to four-year lows in early trading on Monday after the collapse of Opec+ talks saw Saudi Arabia and Russia launch an oil price war, sending crude prices tumbling 25 per cent to $32 per barrel.

Russia’s finance ministry said it would spend from a $150bn war chest to boost Russia’s budget after the ruble slumped from 68 to the dollar at last close on global markets to close to 73, the weakest since January 2016. Trading was suspended in Russia due to a public holiday.

The finance ministry said it would spend foreign currency reserves in its national wealth fund to support president Vladimir Putin’s stimulus and social programs — which he sees as key to kickstart Russia’s moribund economy — while oil prices remained low.

Moscow has squirreled away surplus oil and gas revenues over a break-even price of $42 per barrel in the fund fund in recent years through a “budget rule”.

“In the case prices remain stably low, the presence of sufficient liquid assets in the NWF guarantees the government can fulfil its obligations and keep macroeconomic and financial stability,” the finance ministry said.

The $150bn national wealth fund, which accounts for 9.2 per cent of Russia’s gross domestic product, is sufficient to cover for oil prices at current levels for six to 10 years, the ministry added. If the fund’s liquid assets fall below 5 per cent of Russia’s GDP, the ministry will limit spending to no more than 1 per cent of GDP per year.

The finance ministry said it would also likely suspend government bond auctions due to market volatility. The central bank said it would suspend the budget rule payments for 30 days in an attempt to “raise the predictability of the actions of monetary authorities and lower the volatility of financial markets” after the oil price crash.

Saudi Aramco shares drop 10%

Shares in Saudi Aramco tumbled 10 per cent at the open on Riyadh’s Tadawul exchange, leaving it further below its December IPO price, after the kingdom kickstarted an aggressive oil price war.

Riyadh’s threat to discount its crude and raise production prompted brent crude, the international oil marker, to fall to as low as $31.02. It was recently down 25 per cent at $33.91.

Shares in Aramco fell 9.1 per cent yesterday. Today’s fall leaves them at SR27 ($7.46) – well blow the IPO price of R32 a share.

Germany pledges €12bn four-year investment to support companies

The German government has unveiled a package of measures to help companies hit by the coronavirus outbreak and promised a €12.4bn investment spending spree over the next four years as concerns about the virus’s impact on the eurozone’s largest economy intensify, writes Guy Chazan in Berlin.

The measures were agreed after a seven-hour meeting of leaders of the three parties in the “grand coalition” government on Sunday night.

The centrepiece of the package is a push to ease companies’ access to Kurzarbeit funds. Kurzarbeit is a government-subsidised scheme used to great effect during the 2008-9 financial crisis that enables companies to reduce staff working hours during an economic slowdown without having to lay them off. The government announced it would help companies in a liquidity crunch with export credit guarantees and tax holidays for those companies worst affected by the outbreak.

According to one poll late last week, half of all German companies expect their revenue to shrink this year, thanks to the corona epidemic. The survey by the German chamber of industries and trade (DIHK) of 10,000 companies showed that trade fair operators, hotels and companies in the tourism sector were worst affected. The DIHK demanded an immediate package of aid, including tax holidays, and easier access to state support such as Kurzarbeit funds.

But a proposal by the left-of-centre Social Democrats to bring forward the abolition of the “solidarity surcharge” for 90 per cent of taxpayers by six months was rejected by Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. The surcharge was introduced in 1991 to help pay for reunification between East and West Germany.

The parties agreed to increase federal investments in the years between 2021 and 2024 by €3.1bn a year and “enable new priorities to the tune of €12.4bn”.

European shares expected to tumble

European stocks were set to slide after a collapse in the price of oil sent new shockwaves through global markets on Monday.

Futures pointed to declines of 6.8 per cent for London’s FTSE 100, which is packed with energy companies. While futures are not always flawless indicators of how a market will perform, such a move would herald the blue-chip index’s worst day since the depths of the 2008-09 financial crisis.

Other European markets were set to post similar declines, with Germany’s Dax and France’s Cac 40 each indicated to open around 7 per cent lower.

Thailand introduces strict rules for airline passengers

John Reed reports from Bangkok

Thailand has put in place strict rules requiring airlines to check the health of passengers from South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Italy, and Iran before allowing them to board flights.

Carriers will be asked to perform health checks of passengers at check-in and passengers will be asked to present health certificates “certifying that they have no risk of Coronavirus Disease”, according to the guidelines, dated March 8 and published on Monday.

Passengers who are unable to present such certificates will be denied boarding.
The guidelines, published by the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand, also hold airlines responsible for expenses relating to the isolation, treatment, and hospital care of people found on flights with the disease.

The tough measures come at a time when Prayuth Chan-ocha’s Thai government is under growing public criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. The epidemic has caused arrivals to the country to fall, threatening its economically pivotal tourism industry.

Thailand last week designated the same six countries and territories “dangerous communicable disease areas”, and imposed a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine requirement for people arriving from them. The new rules set a 20,000 Thai baht ($633) fine for people who failed to comply, but there was confusion as to how the new rules would be enforced, or to which countries they would apply.

Thailand has to date confirmed 50 cases of the disease.

Europe: what you might have missed

Global stocks and government bond yields tumbled after oil prices crashed by almost a third, as the prospect of a crude oil price war hit markets already reeling from the coronavirus outbreak. Read more here.

The number of new coronavirus cases in South Korea has slowed for a third day following massive testing efforts.

Shanghai Disney said it will begin a “phased reopening” with a limited number of resort facilities, such as shops, resuming business from Monday. The number of new cases in China fell to 40 on Sunday.

Saudi Arabia has barred its citizens and foreign residents from travelling to nine countries to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Tourism-related companies are feeling the effects of cooling demand as coronavirus spreads, with Air New Zealand and Flight Centre introducing measures to cut costs.

Australia to suffer first recession in three decades – Westpac

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

Australia will suffer its first recession in 29 years due to the impact of the coronavirus, according to revised economic forecasts by Westpac.

Australia’s second biggest bank by market capitalisation said on Monday it expects the economy to contract in the first and second quarters by 0.3 per cent respectively, which would constitute a technical recession.

But it expects the economy to bounce back strongly in the third and fourth quarters, which would see gross domestic product grow overall by 1.6 per cent in the 12 months to the end of December.

“That growth profile constitutes a technical recession but given the expected recovery in the second half of the year it is much more realistic to characterise the situation as a ‘major disruption’ to growth rather than the style of recession that Australia has experienced in the past,” said Bill Evans, Westpac, chief economist.

He said unemployment should hold below 6 per cent, in contrast to the unemployment rate of 11 per cent experienced in Australia’s last two recessions.

Mr Evans said the forecasts did not account for a fiscal stimulus package currently being prepared by Canberra.

Australia has enjoyed a record breaking 29 year run without experiencing recession.

Italian cruise ship to dock in Singapore after permission refused elsewhere

Mercedes Ruehl reports from Singapore

An Italian cruise ship that was rejected by Thailand and Malaysia will be allowed to dock in Singapore tomorrow.

The Costa Fortuna, which was on a 14-day voyage that originated in the city-state, has capacity for more than 3,000 passengers.

Cruise ships across Asia have struggled to dock over the past month, amid fears of the spread of the coronavirus among their passengers.

Nobody on board the Costa Fortuna has tested positive for the virus, or is suspected to be carrying it, according to the cruise line’s representatives.

However all passengers and crew will be checked by a doctor on board before being permitted to disembark, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore and the Singapore Tourism Board said in a joint statement.

The cruise ship was barred from docking in Phuket, Thailand, and then Penang, Malaysia.

The situation is similar to that of the cruise ship Westerdam, which criss-crossed the South China Sea in February unable to dock until it was given permission to do so in Cambodia.

Mandarin Oriental warns of hit from coronavirus

Mandarin Oriental has said it expects to be “significantly impacted” by the coronavirus, particularly in Hong Kong, and that it is “cautious” for the outlook for 2020.

“The Group’s performance is being significantly impacted by the ongoing coronavirus, particularly in Hong Kong. Results for the remainder of the year will depend on the duration, geographic extent and impact of the coronavirus and the measures taken to control it,” chairman Ben Keswick said as the group released its results for the 12 months to the end of December.

He said it was difficult to tell if the impact seen in East Asia would be repeated in other parts of the world. Tourism has shrunk in Asia as demand for overseas travel has been hit by the virus, forcing airlines to suspend routes, particularly to China.

Hotel occupancy rates in Hong Kong fell to 59 per cent in January, from 92 per cent a year earlier, government figures showed, on the effects of the coronavirus and political unrest that had scared away visitors to the territory.

Mr Kewswick said he was “cautious” as there are economic and political uncertainties in many of the hotel group’s markets. The group reported a $55m loss for 2019, against a $43.4m profit a year earlier amid lower earnings in Hong Kong as the city saw widespread protests and after the closure of The Excelsior hotel in the territory.

Saudi Arabia bans travel to 9 countries

Simeon Kerr reports from Dubai

Saudi Arabia has suspended travel to nine countries, including its immediate Gulf neighbours, as coronavirus spreads in the kingdom.

The state news agency said on Monday that citizens and foreign residents would be banned from travelling to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Italy and South Korea.

The government also said it would stop flights to and from those countries. Airlines on Monday started to suspended operations. Etihad of Abu Dhabi said flights to the kingdom were suspended indefinitely. Dubai’s Emirates said flights through March 11 would be cancelled.

The authorities have extended the temporary ban to people seeking to enter the kingdom from those countries, or anyone who has been there in the past 14 days.

The restrictions were imposed as the ministry of health reported four new cases, including a US resident returning from a trip to the Philippines and Italy. The new cases bring the Saudi total to 15.

Tighter restrictions on travel to some of Saudi Arabia’s closest allies and economic partners come after the government on Sunday locked down the district of Qatif, north of the city of Dammam in the oil-rich eastern province.

Most Saudi cases have been recorded among residents of Qatif, where the virus has spread from individuals who had returned from Iran, the regional state most affected by the outbreak.

Aussie dollar in ‘flash crash’ as commodity-linked currencies fall

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

The Australian dollar experienced a ‘flash crash’ on Monday, plunging almost 5 per cent against the US dollar in just 20 minutes as the currency slumped to its lowest level since the global financial crisis in 2008.

The sell-off followed a collapse in oil prices and growing fears among investors about the possibility of a global recession linked to the spread of the coronavirus.

Several other commodity linked currencies such as the Mexican peso, the Norwegian krone and the Russian rouble also fell sharply on currency markets.

The Australian dollar, the world’s fifth most traded currency, fell from $0.66 to $0.6313 to the US dollar during a period of frenetic trading shortly after 12.30pm. It later bounced back above $0.65 later in the afternoon.

Traders said the flash crash were likely caused by algorithmic trading platforms impacting on market liquidity.

“The bungee jump characteristics of the moves don’t make sense,” said Ray Attrill, head of FX strategy at national Australia Bank.

But he said lower oil prices were bad news for the Australian dollar, due to its position as one of the world’s biggest exporters of liquefied natural gas.

Shanghai Disney resort to partially resume operations

Shanghai Disney resort today announced the first stage of a “phased reopening”, with several areas returning to activity despite the main park remaining shut indefinitely.

In a statement, the resort said:

Shanghai Disneyland remains closed as we continue to closely monitor health and safety conditions and follow the direction of government regulators. However, as the first step of a phased reopening, Shanghai Disney Resort will partially resume operations on March 9, 2020 with a limited number of shopping, dining, and recreational experiences available in Disneytown, Wishing Star Park and Shanghai Disneyland Hotel. Each of these resort locations will operate under limited capacity and reduced hours of operation.

Shanghai Disneyland has been closed for six weeks after the coronavirus outbreak took hold. Disney parks in Tokyo and Hong Kong have also closed over recent weeks as the virus has spread.

China’s biggest drug distributor issues profit warning

Primrose Riordan reports from Hong Kong

China’s biggest drug distributor, Sinopharm, said it expects its first quarter performance to “decline significantly” compared to last year in a statement to the Hong Kong stock exchange that warned on profits.

The company said its net profit declined by 50 per cent in January and February compared to the same period the year before.

The regular sale of medicines by hospitals and pharmacies has been disrupted by the coronavirus, the company said, adding that the roll out of government drug procurement policies had also dented their revenue separately.

Sinopharm said it will publish its results before the end of April.

New coronavirus cases slow in South Korea

Song Jung-a reports from Seoul

The number of new confirmed cases of coronavirus is falling in South Korea as officials step up efforts to contain the virus outbreak with aggressive testing programmes across the country.

Health officials said on Monday morning that there were 248 new infections in South Korea, bringing the total to 7,382, still the highest number of cases outside China. But the number of new confirmed cases fell for three consecutive days, although one more death took the toll to 51.

South Korea’s prime minister Chung Sye-kyun was hopeful on Monday that the country could find “an inflection point sooner or later” in the fast spread of the deadly virus in the country.

Mr Chung linked the slowing rate of increase to the fact that tests for the 210,000 followers of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which was at the heart of the outbreak, was nearing the end.

Health authorities said on Monday that the country can issue fines of up to Won10m ($8,307) if a person with symptoms refuses to be tested or disrupts tests. Authorities conducted a total of 189,236 tests with 171,778 of them being negative. About 17,458 tests are underway.

The government on Monday imposed a rationing system to ease shortages of face masks, limiting the number of masks each person can buy a week.

The spread of COVID-19 is also worsening the country’s relations with Japan. South Korea on Friday said it would suspend visa waivers for Japan in protest at Tokyo’s travel restrictions on South Koreans. More than 100 countries have imposed travel restrictions on arrivals from South Korea.

Earlier in the day, North Korea fired short-range projectiles of “various types” from its east coast into the Sea of Japan, despite the looming risk of a coronavirus catastrophe battering the country. The projectiles flew up to 200km with an apogee of about 50km, according to the South Korean military.

Australian stocks take biggest hit since financial crisis

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

The Australian share market suffered its biggest opening day fall since the global financial crisis in 2008 on Monday, as investors reacted to a slump in oil prices and the continuing spread of the coronavirus.

More than A$100bn was wiped off the value of shares in the first two hours of trading, as the ASX 200 index fell 6 per cent to 5,859.6.

Oil and gas producers bore the brunt of the sell off with Santos shedding a quarter of its value at A$4.96, Origin Energy falling 14 per cent at A$5.84 and Oil Search down 30 per cent at A$3.54 just after midday.

The moves came after the price of oil crashed 30 per cent, sending shockwaves through global financial markets.

BHP shares fell almost 12 per cent to A$28.35 while Rio Tinto fell 8 per cent to A$79.28.

Air New Zealand to cut more flights as coronavirus dents demand

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

Flight Centre Ltd and Air New Zealand introduced a new round of cost cuts and capacity reductions on Monday in response to a collapse in bookings linked to the coronavirus outbreak.

The move comes amid growing investor concerns about companies with high debt levels in the travel and tourism sectors.

New Zealand’s biggest airline said on Monday the financial impact of the virus would be more than it guided just two weeks ago at its interim results. The airline said it was not in a position to give a new earnings outlook.

“We have been continuously monitoring bookings and in recent days have seen a further decline which coincides with media coverage of the spread of Covid-19 to most countries on our network as well as here in New Zealand,” said Greg Foran, Air New Zealand chief executive.

In response, Mr Foran said the airline is implementing further capacity reductions, which would reduce total capacity to Asia by a quarter and domestic capacity by 10 per cent. He said the airline would defer non-urgent capital expenditure and non-critical business activity. Air New Zealand is implementing a hiring freeze, extending an executive salary freeze that has been in place since May 2019 and Mr Foran has voluntarily offered to reduce his base salary of NZ$1.65m by 15 per cent.

Flight Centre, a Brisbane-based company that is one of the world’s biggest travel agents, said on Monday it is asking employees to take unpaid leave or reduce their working hours to cut costs.

“While it’s quieter than normal, it makes sense to encourage people to take leave or to operate more flexibly,” said a Flight Centre spokesman.

“A shorter work week is one of the options that has been made available to our support and sales people over the next couple of months.”

The cost cutting in the travel industry comes as investors closely scrutinise the financial strength of airlines and related industries. Shares in Virgin Australia, Australia’s second biggest carrier, are trading at 10 year lows of just over A$0.08 following a decision by credit rating agency S&P to downgrade Virgin’s outlook to negative and warn its debt to earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation may exceed 6 times for the year ended June 30 2020.

Virgin, which held one-to-one meetings with investors on Friday, said the group retained significant financial flexibility and maintained a cash position in excess of A$1bn.

China reports 40 cases of coronavirus

Health authorities in China reported 40 new cases of coronavirus to the end of the Sunday, down from the previous day’s tally of 44. That took the total for mainland China to 80,965. Wuhan, the origin of the outbreak that has now spread around the world, reported 36 of the day’s cases.

The National Health Commission reported 22 deaths, to bring the total fatalities to 3,119.

US futures, Asia stocks slide on hit from oil and coronavirus

Hudson Lockett reports from Hong Kong

A 30 per cent crash in oil prices on Monday sent shockwaves through global financial markets already reeling from coronavirus woes.

Brent crude, the international benchmark, dropped from $45 a barrel to as low as $31.02 in one of the biggest one-day drops in its history, with traders spooked by Saudi Arabia’s decision to launch an effective price war.

US stock futures tumbled in Asian trading, with the S&P 500 expected to drop 5 per cent when Wall Street opens later on Monday and the FTSE 100 tipped to fall 3.7 per cent.

The US response to the coronavirus has received criticism for being too slow and lacking transparency as the number of cases climb in the country.

A leading White House coronavirus expert warned on Sunday that the rising number of cases in the US was making it harder to determine how people were contracting the virus, intensifying concern over people attending large events around the country.

Asia-Pacific equities fell sharply at the open, with Sydney’s S&P/ASX 200 down 5 per cent in early trading and on track for the worst one-day fall since the global financial crisis. In Tokyo the Topix fell 3.3 per cent at the open.

Investors piled into haven assets, driving the 10-year US Treasury yield down more than a quarter of a percentage point to 0.4949 per cent, a record low. Yields fall as bond prices rise. Gold jumped 1.6 per cent to $1,700.66 per ounce.

The US dollar dropped half a per cent against its international peers, with the dollar index shedding 0.5 per cent. The Japanese yen rose as much as 1.8 per cent against the dollar to ¥103.53, pushing past the ¥104 for the first time in more than three years. The euro gained as much as 1 per cent to $1.1394, an eight-month high.

N Korea fires projectiles as S Korea battles coronavirus

Song Jung-a reports from Seoul

North Korea on Monday fired three unidentified projectiles, South Korea’s military said, a week after launching two short-range missiles, raising the security threat as South Korea struggles to contain a coronavirus outbreak.

Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the projectiles were fired from a town in North Korea’s South Hamgyong province into the Sea of Japan. It said South Korea was maintaining a readiness posture for potential additional launches.

Pyongyang last week fired two short-range missiles off the country’s east coast into the Sea of Japan. In recent days, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has supervised live-fire artillery drills in the country’s first weapons test since late November.

The latest projectile launch comes as North Korea faces a looming risk of coronavirus catastrophe. North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Television said on Sunday the country released about 3,650 people from quarantine.

According to North Korean state media, as many as 10,000 people were placed under quarantine for symptoms of the coronavirus,which has swept through neighbouring China and is spreading fast in South Korea.

North Korea has yet to report any confirmed case of coronavirus as Pyongyang acted quickly to close its border with China after reports of the virus emerged from Wuhan in January. But analysts have warned that the country is particularly vulnerable given its poor public health system.

Coronavirus hottest: Italy spreads virus more rapidly than any other state


Asia-Pacific faces $211bn economic reduction, suggests S&P

Jamie Smyth reviews from Sydney

The distribute of the coronavirus will blow a $211bn hole in Asia-Pacific economies in 2020, lessening the region’s once-a-year expansion rate to the least expensive stage because the worldwide monetary crisis in 2008, according to S&P World.

The credit history score company mentioned a U-formed recovery should get started afterwards this yr but warned the outlook for the location has darkened mostly due to the global distribute of the coronavirus.

Economic development is forecast at 4 for every cent, down from 4.9 per cent in 2019, and a number of regional economies will flirt with economic downturn, S&P reported.

“Household investing in Japan and Korea are established to weaken even more and slower progress in the US and Europe will add to exterior headwinds,” reported Shaun Roache, Asia-Pacific chief economist at S&P World wide Scores.

“China’s return to operate is continuing at a glacial pace as regional officers stay careful about a renewed upturn in bacterial infections,” he explained.

S&P expects China to develop at just 4.8 per cent this 12 months just before rebounding to 6.6 per cent in 2021.

The company claimed even a U-formed restoration would mean an financial decline of about $211bn across the region, which will weaken stability sheets.

Some financial actions will be misplaced for good, particularly for the service sector, explained S&P.

Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand would be among the the toughest-strike regional economies, largely owing to the loss of tourism, business travel and offer chain disruptions.

S&P predicts Hong Kong’s economic system will agreement by .8 per cent in 2020, expansion will flatline in Singapore and Thailand will develop by just 1.6 for every cent.

Australia is also susceptible, with expansion in 2020 predicted to contact 1.2 for each cent, S&P additional.

Central bankers pledge motion to ease coronavirus strike to overall economy


Central bankers have pledged to get decisive action to stem the economic hurt caused by the distribute of coronavirus, as finance ministers from the G7 group of major economies prepare to focus on feasible stimulus actions. 

The Reserve Bank of Australia grew to become the to start with significant central lender to choose motion in reaction to the economic affect of coronavirus, cutting curiosity charges on Tuesday by a quarter of a proportion stage to a new document very low of .5 per cent. It was followed shortly afterwards by the Malaysian central bank, which cut its overnight policy fee by a quarter of a share level to 2.5 for each cent.

Mark Carney, the outgoing Lender of England governor, reported on Tuesday that the scale of the shock to the world-wide economy “could be large”, with a massive impression long lasting a single or two quarters.

His remarks arrived the day following Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Lender, reported that it was “ready to get suitable and focused measures” to handle the financial impression of the coronavirus, signalling a developing willingness to intervene.

Predicting a “powerful and timely” world-wide reaction, Mr Carney claimed: “It is acceptable to hope a reaction that demonstrates a combination of fiscal actions and central lender initiatives.”

He will take part in the G7 finance ministers’ connect with later on on Tuesday, right after which the ministers are anticipated to make a joint statement about the feasible stimulus choices offered to them.

World inventory marketplaces rebounded on Tuesday immediately after previous week’s succession of falls, as investors’ expectations intensified that the world’s major central banking companies and governments would act to soften the virus’s financial blow.

Talking to a United kingdom parliamentary committee, Mr Carney mentioned: “Across jurisdictions there will be some differences in precise form of all those measures and correct timing but the reaction will share a frequent objective to accomplish bridging — supporting the economy via a potentially demanding period of time.”

The lines of communications involving the world’s major central financial institutions “are extensive open”, he additional. 

The Reserve Financial institution of Australia reported the outbreak is obtaining a “significant effect” on the country’s economic system.

The Australian govt confirmed on Tuesday that it was making ready a “targeted and measured” fiscal stimulus package amid rising concerns amid policymakers that Australia could deal with its to start with economic downturn in practically 3 decades.

In a assertion Philip Lowe, RBA governor, said: “The coronavirus outbreak overseas is getting a significant outcome on the Australian financial state at present, specially in the instruction and travel sectors.”

He additional that GDP development in March was probably to be “noticeably weaker than previously expected”.

The European Central Bank is working on quite a few means to inject low cost revenue into the eurozone economy that would provide a financial coverage stimulus without chopping charges even further into damaging territory.

Danae Kyriakopoulou, main economist at central banking assume-tank OMFIF, explained: “The ECB is extra limited than other central financial institutions for the reason that its fees are now quite very low and so it is more durable for it to slash them further.”

She mentioned this created it much more probably to search at alternatives, such as improved inexpensive lending to banking institutions or much more asset buys.

A single concept is being looked at by ECB officers is to develop its programme of furnishing inexpensive financial loans to banking companies to incentivise them to retain credit rating flowing to firms by means of the targeted for a longer time-expression refinancing procedure (TLTRO) programme which it relaunched final year.

The ECB could supply financial loans to financial institutions at detrimental fascination costs on the condition that the banking companies continue to keep lending to tiny firms impacted by the disruption of the virus, both by repurposing its present TLTRO programme or launching a new one particular.

Ms Lagarde hinted in her statement on Monday that the financial institution was thinking about these kinds of measures.

An additional alternative that the ECB is predicted to glimpse at is to expand its bond invest in programme to purchase additional credit card debt issued by firms alternatively than governments — aiming to ease any strain on corporate finance marketplaces.

When the ECB’s governing council is likely to be unwilling to slice its deposit rate from its presently document minimal of minus .5 per cent when it meets on March 12, it could be pressured into this if the euro proceeds to enjoy from the US dollar and the Federal Reserve cuts rates at its conference a week later on, as a lot of count on.

“The 3 for each cent surge in the trade-weighted exchange fee of the euro more than the past two weeks has been the largest in four many years in excess of these types of a short period of time of time,” reported Frederik Ducrozet, strategist at Pictet Prosperity Administration. “More than the degree of the currency alone, it is the volatility that will scare the ECB the most.”

Traders are pricing in a bet that the ECB will slash its most important deposit level to minus .6 per cent as early as April.

Swiss financial policymakers are seeing the establishing worldwide influence of the outbreak with sizeable issue: the Swiss Nationwide Financial institution is already into its fifth 12 months of detrimental interest premiums, as section of a an unparalleled hard work to suppress the Swiss franc’s appreciation.

Amid widespread geopolitical uncertainty and ultra-minimal premiums in other parts of the formulated earth, the franc’s status as a conventional safe haven has set the currency less than sustained upward pressure. The SNB fears any further increase in price for the franc would have catastrophic outcomes on Swiss industry.

The SNB has moved in lockstep with equally the Federal Reserve and the ECB in its charge coverage, regularly making an attempt to preserve a amount underneath them to devalue the franc against the greenback and euro. So much coronavirus fears have only led to a slight appreciation of the franc versus the greenback and the franc has held its level from the euro.

“We are of class having the achievable implications of coronavirus into thing to consider,” the SNB said in a statement on Tuesday.

“The coronavirus has greater economic hazards: If the intercontinental surroundings were to deteriorate, this would have repercussions for Switzerland as a compact open economic climate,” it added. “There could also be a immediate effect by means of certain trading partners, such as China. Furthermore, in periods of uncertainty traders increasingly find risk-free havens these kinds of as the Swiss franc, and this could direct to the franc appreciating.”

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