Asian stocks fall, safe havens up as China virus fears grow

A man stands in front of an electronic board showing the Nikkei stock index outside a brokerage in Tokyo. — Reuters pic
A man stands in front of an electronic board showing the Nikkei stock index outside a brokerage in Tokyo. — Reuters pic

TOKYO, Jan 23 ― Asian shares and US stock futures edged lower today as investors remained anxious about the spread of a new flu-like virus in China just as millions prepared to travel for the Lunar New Year.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan fell 0.13 per cent. Australian shares were down 0.75 per cent, while Japan's Nikkei stock index slid 0.64 per cent.

The Chinese yuan nursed losses in offshore trading, while safe-havens such as the Japanese yen and the Swiss franc held onto gains hours before a travel blockade of the Chinese city at the centre of the outbreak starts later today.

Oil futures extended declines as the contagion was expected to hit airline travel, while the International Energy Agency's warning of an oil surplus and a larger-than-expected increase in US crude inventories re-kindled fears of excess supply.

Deaths from China's new coronavirus rose to 17 yesterday, with more than 540 cases confirmed. The outbreak has evoked memories of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002-2003, another coronavirus which broke out in China and killed nearly 800 people in a global pandemic.

“Markets are expressing concern about the growth outlook,” said Michael McCarthy, chief market strategist at CMC Markets in Sydney.

“The coronavirus has introduced some caution. There is no reason to expect a global pandemic now, but there is some repricing in financial markets.”

US stock futures fell 0.05 per cent today in Asia.

The S&P 500 eked out a 0.03 per cent gain yesterday, but the overall tone on Wall Street was mixed as investors assessed the impact of the virus and braced for the corporate earnings season.

The previously unknown coronavirus strain is believed to have emerged late last year from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Cases have been detected in Beijing, Shanghai, Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, and the United States.

Wuhan's local government said it would close all urban transport networks and suspend outgoing flights as of 10am today (0200 GMT). Citizens have been urged not to leave the city.

However, there are fears the virus could spread rapidly, because millions of Chinese travel domestically and abroad during the week-long Lunar New Year holidays, which start tomorrow.

Shares of Australia's Qantas Airways Ltd fell 0.66 per cent, while Japan Airlines Co fell 1.28 per cent and rival air carrier ANA Holdings Inc declined 0.86 per cent.

In the offshore market, the yuan traded at 6.9134 per dollar, close to a two-week low.

The yen rose 0.2 per cent to 109.62 versus the dollar, while the Swiss franc traded at 0.9680 against the greenback.

Gold, another asset that is often bought as a safe haven, advanced 0.28 per cent to US$1,563.03 (RM6,357.04) per ounce.

The yield on benchmark 10-year Treasury notes fell slightly to 1.7586 per cent in Asia as some investors sought the safety of government debt.

Markets took Republican US President Donald Trump's impeachment trial in stride, as he is widely expected to be acquitted in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Democrats accused Trump at the start of his impeachment trial yesterday of a corrupt scheme to pressure Ukraine to help him get re-elected.

Trump told reporters in Switzerland the Democrats did not have enough evidence to find him guilty and remove him from office.

US crude dipped 1.06 per cent to US$56.14 a barrel. The American Petroleum Institute said US crude inventories rose 1.6 million barrels last week, compared with analysts' expectations for 1 million-barrel draw. ― Reuters

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