File picture of a stock indicator board at Tokyo Stock Exchange. Global stocks, and more so Asia's, have been in a free fall as investors fret about economic growth and corporate losses. Image Credit: AFP

Tokyo: World share markets were headed for their worst week since the depths of the 2008 financial crisis as investors ditched risky assets on fears the coronavirus would become a pandemic and trigger a global recession.

Stock futures showed European indexes set to track the rout in their Asian counterparts on Friday, which comes after another massive selloff on Wall Street overnight. Hopes that the epidemic that started in China would be over in a few months and economic activity would return to normal have been shattered, as new infections reported around the world now surpass those in China.

The worsening global threat from the virus prompted investors to rapidly step up bets the US Federal Reserve would cut interest rates as soon as next month to support economic growth.

“We don’t even need to wait for economic data to see how badly the economy is being hit,” said Tomoaki Shishido, senior economist at Nomura Securities. “You can tell that the sales of airlines and hotels are already falling by a half or something like that.

A 25 basis point cut

Expectations the Fed will cut interest rates to cushion the blow are rising in money markets. Analysts say Fed funds futures are now pricing in about a 75 per cent chance of a 25 basis point cut at the central bank’s March 17-18 meeting.

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell
There is no time left to delay responses to the growing global crisis. US Federal Reserve chief Jerome Powell needs to respond with an interest rate cut to goose growth chances. Image Credit: Reuters

“It is fair to say the impact of the coronavirus will be clearly much bigger than the US-China trade war. So the Fed does not have a reason to take a wait-and-see stance next month.”

In free fall everywhere


In Asia, the MSCI all-country world index fell 0.6 per cent on Friday after 3.3 per cent drop on Thursday. So far this week it has lost 9.4 per cent, on course for its biggest weekly decline since a 9.8 per cent plunge in November 2008.

The MSCI regional index excluding Japan shed 2.7 per cent. Japan’s Nikkei slumped 4.3 per cent on rising fears the Olympics planned in July-August may be called off due to the coronavirus.

The global rout knocked mainland Chinese shares lower, which have been relatively well supported this month, as new coronavirus cases in the country fell and Beijing doled out measures to shore up economic growth.

The CSI300 index of Shanghai and Shenzhen shares dropped 2.9 per cent, on track for its first weekly loss in three.

The US

Wall Street shares led the rout as the S&P 500 fell 4.42 per cent, its largest percentage drop since August 2011, on Thursday. It has lost 12 per cent since hitting a record close on February 19, marking its fastest correction ever in just six trading days.

190126 WALL STREET 2
There is fear all over Wall Street over how low this phase could play out. Image Credit: Reuters

The CBOE volatility index, often called the “fear index”, jumped to 39.16, the highest level in about two years, well out of the 11-20 range of recent months. The index, which measures expected swings in US shares in the next 30 days, typically shoots up to around 50 when bear market selling hits its heaviest and approached almost 90 during the 2008-09 financial crisis.

Mainland Europe

European shares are expected to dive more than 3 per cent, with Euro Stoxx 50 futures down 3.18 per cent, German DAX futures shedding 3.46 per cent and FTSE futures losing 3.29 per cent. US stock futures fell 1.5 per cent in Asia pointing to another bumpy Wall Street session.

“The coronavirus now looks like a pandemic. Markets can cope even if there is big risk as long as we can see the end of the tunnel,” said Norihiro Fujito, chief investment strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities. “But at the moment, no one can tell how long this will last and how severe it will get.” (The World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the virus could become a pandemic as the outbreak spreads to major developed economies such as Germany and France.)

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About 10 countries have reported their first virus cases over the past 24 hours, including Nigeria, the biggest economy in Africa.

“Economic troubles outside China, especially in the US, could hurt the Chinese economy,” said Wang Shenshen, senior China equity strategist at Mizuho Securities. “Foreign investors, who were buying Chinese shares after the Lunar New Year holidays, have become a net seller since late last week.”

Oil's woes
Fears of a major economic slump sent oil prices to their lowest in more than a year.
US crude futures fell 3.2 per cent to $45.59 per barrel, having lost 14.5 per cent so far on the week, which would be the deepest fall in nearly nine years.

But investors flocked to the safety of high-grade bonds. US yields plunged with the benchmark 10-year notes yield hitting a record low of 1.241 per cent.

On the other hand, junk bond ETF prices fell to multi-month lows on fears of increasing bankruptcies among highly leveraged companies, with the energy sector hit hard by falls in oil prices.