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:

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”.

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.


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.


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.”

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.

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