HONG KONG, July 14 — Fears over a spike in coronavirus infections around the world, the reimposition of containment measures and China-US tensions pushed Asian equities lower today, while oil prices were also hit by speculation top producers will begin tapering their output cuts.
And news that Singapore’s economy, considered a regional barometer, contracted a mind-boggling 41 per cent in the second quarter provided a stark reality-check for traders.
After hitting lows in March, markets have been surging thanks to government support and optimism that the world economy will bounce back as crippling lockdowns are eased.
But a worrying increase in new virus cases across the planet has forced governments to revert to measures aimed at preventing the disease’s spread.
California, the richest of the US states, ordered all indoor restaurants, bars and movie theatres to re-close, while churches, gyms, shopping malls, hair salons and non-essential offices have been told to shut up shop in several densely populated counties, including Los Angeles.
The measures follow new restrictions imposed in Texas, Arizona, Florida and other major states.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong yesterday announced sweeping new curbs as the city suffers a relapse. Melbourne is already under a new lockdown and there are signs of new outbreaks in Sydney.
The new spikes come as World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned: “There will be no return to the ‘old normal’ for the foreseeable future.”
He added that without governments adopting a comprehensive strategy, the situation would get “worse and worse and worse”.
The developments overshadowed an announcement from Pfizer and BioNTech that two of four vaccine candidates for the virus had received “Fast Track” designation from the US Food and Drug Administration.
Asian markets tracked a weak lead from Wall Street.
Hong Kong fell more than one per cent, Shanghai dropped 0.8 per cent and Tokyo lost 0.9 per cent.
Sydney fell 0.6 per cent, Seoul was off 0.1 per cent, Mumbai shed two per cent and Bangkok eased 0.9 per cent.
Taipei, Jakarta and Manila were all flat, but Wellington was up 0.5 per cent.
Singapore was 0.2 per cent down after figures showed the city-state’s trade-dependent economy plunged into recession for the first time in a decade as it contracted a record 41.2 per cent on-quarter in April-June and 12.6 per cent on-year.
The worse-than-expected figures will ring alarm bells for Asia’s many trade-dependent economies as Singapore is typically hit first before ripples spread across the region.
London was 0.7 per cent down after news that Britain’s economy contracted by almost a fifth in the three months to May, compared with December-February. Frankfurt and Paris each lost more than one per cent.
“There is a risk that the divergence between a gloomy economic outlook and unexpectedly strong returns from equity markets is reconciled by some pull-back in asset prices rather than a surge in economic optimism,” said Chris Iggo at AXA Investment Managers. “There is a case for caution.”
Geopolitical tensions were also back on the table after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China’s pursuit of resources in the South China Sea “unlawful”, ramping up support for Southeast Asian nations and triggering an angry response from Beijing.
The comments added to a laundry list of issues that have the two economic superpowers at odds, including China’s role in the pandemic, trade, Hong Kong and tech giant Huawei.
“The US relationship with China and jobs and law-and-order form the troika of issues that will serve as the primary platform for President Trump’s re-election campaign,” said Stephen Innes at AxiCorp.
“Growing US-China tensions are now a daily breakfast staple and will likely remain so into the November election.”
Oil markets dropped as new lockdowns fuel concerns about demand, while focus is on this week’s technical gathering of key crude producers inside and outside OPEC who are expected to roll back production cuts.
The group will discuss its 10-million-barrels-a-day cut in production that was agreed earlier this month to support prices as they plunged to record lows, with speculation the figure could be tapered to around 7.7 million.
There was some good news today in data showing Chinese exports and imports grew in June, having plunged the month before, as the world’s number two economy emerges from the crisis.
The figures come days before the release of data expected to show GDP returned to expansion in April-June after a deep contraction in the previous quarter.
Key figures around 0810 GMT
Tokyo — Nikkei 225: DOWN 0.9 per cent at 22,587.01 (close)
Hong Kong — Hang Seng: DOWN 1.1 per cent at 25,477.89 (close)
Shanghai — Composite: DOWN 0.8 per cent at 3,414.62 (close)
London — FTSE 100: DOWN 0.7 per cent at 6,133.24
West Texas Intermediate: DOWN 2.0 per cent at US$39.30 per barrel
Brent North Sea crude: DOWN 1.7 per cent at US$41.98 per barrel
Euro/dollar: DOWN at US$1.1329 from US$1.1344 at 2050 GMT
Dollar/yen: UP at 107.29 yen from 107.24 yen
Pound/dollar: DOWN at US$1.2520 from US$1.2551
Euro/pound: UP at 90.51 pence from 90.38 pence
New York — Dow: FLAT at 26,085.80 (close)
Bloomberg News contributed to this story — AFP