Asian markets tumble as fears over virus outbreak spread


Shares tumbled in Asia on Thursday as concern over the impact of the virus outbreak in China deepened.

Taiwan’s benchmark dived 5.3% as its market reopened after the Lunar New Year. Japan’s Nikkei 225 index sank 1.9% to 22,935.20, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index skidded 1.7% to 26,693.06. In Australia, the S&P ASX/200 declined 0.4% to 7,001.60. South Korea’s Kospi lost 1.4% to 2,154.05.

Shares also retreated in India and Southeast Asia. Mainland Chinese markets remained closed for the Lunar New Year holiday.

“With equity markets pumped to juicy levels by the relentless flow of cheap central bank money around the world, unexpected Wuhan-like events leave them acutely vulnerable to potentially aggressive corrections,” Jeffrey Halley of Oanda said in a commentary.

The death toll from the virus rose to 170, with 7,711 people confirmed infected, as foreign evacuees from the worst-hit region in central China began returning home under close observation. World health officials expressed “great concern” that the disease is starting to spread between people outside of China.

In other news, South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co. said its operating profit for the last quarter fell 33.7% from a year earlier. But it predicted earnings will improve in 2020, driven by a gradually stabilizing computer chip market and increasing 5G smartphone sales.

Samsung, the world’s biggest producer of smartphones and semiconductors, has suffered a sharp drop in profit over the past year with an industry-wide glut forcing chip-makers to slash prices to clear out inventory.

Overnight, stocks lost momentum on Wall Street as investors tuned in to a news conference by Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell.

The wobbly finish left the benchmark S&P 500 with a 0.1% loss, to 3,273.40. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed with a gain of less than 0.1%, at 28,734.45. The Nasdaq composite inched 0.1% higher, to 9,275.16. The Russell 2000 index of smaller company stocks slid 0.5%, to 1,649.22.

Bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury fell to 1.57% from 1.64% late Tuesday.

Investors were assessing quarterly reports from big companies, including solid results from General Electric and Apple. The iPhone maker’s shares climbed to an all-time high. Microsoft reported quarterly results after the close of regular trading that topped Wall Street estimates.

But stocks barely budged after Federal Reserve announced would leave its benchmark interest rate unchanged at a low level. The move, which was widely expected, reflects the central bank’s mostly positive view of the U.S. economy.

“They seem to have gotten the porridge temperature just about right,” said Tom Martin, senior portfolio manager with Globalt Investments. “Inflation isn’t budging one way or the other — same thing with unemployment, same thing with wage growth.”

Last year, the Fed cut its benchmark interest rate three times after having raised it four times in 2018. Powell credits those rate cuts with revitalizing the housing market, which had stumbled early last year, and offsetting some of the drag from President Donald Trump’s trade war with China.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell acknowledged that there’s a risk the outbreak could slow the global economy.

Wall Street’s busy week of company earnings reports continues Thursday, when Coca-Cola, UPS, Amazon and Visa are scheduled to release results. Caterpillar and Exxon Mobil will report results on Friday.

Benchmark crude oil fell gave up 57 cents to $52.76 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It lost 15 cents to settle at $53.33 a barrel on Wednesday.

Brent crude oil, the international standard, declined 65 cents to $58.26 per barrel. It rose 30 cents to close at $59.81 a barrel overnight.

Gold rose $9.30 cents to $1,579.70 per ounce, silver rose 11 cents to $17.60 per ounce and copper fell 3 cents to $2.55 per pound.

The dollar fell to 108.89 Japanese yen from 108.98 yen on Wednesday. The euro strengthened to $1.1017 from $1.1008.