Asia stocks dive, dollar soars as ECB bazooka fails to ease fears


PTI, Mar 19, 2020, 3:06 PM IST

Hong Kong: Asian equities took another beating Thursday, March 19 while the dollar surged as a European Central Bank plan to spend more than USD 800 billion to buy bonds failed to instil optimism in traders that the world is heading for a virus-fuelled economic catastrophe.

In what one analyst said could be a “game-changer” for the coronavirus-wracked eurozone, the ECB’s so-called Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme aims to give financial markets some much-needed liquidity as investors pull the plug on markets.

It said that the 750-billion-euro (USD 820-billion) programme was temporary and will be halted when the coronavirus crisis is judged to be over “but in any case not before the end of the year”.

After announcing the move, ECB boss Christine Lagarde tweeted that “extraordinary times require extraordinary action. There are no limits to our commitment to the euro.” Those comments echoed the words of her predecessor Mario Draghi, whose pledge to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the eurozone was seen as a turning point in the region’s sovereign debt crisis.

Asian markets initially climbed on the news but soon went into a tailspin as investors contemplate months of economic hardship with countries around the world in lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has now infected more than 200,000 people and killed almost 9,000.

Hong Kong and Singapore each dived more than four per cent, Seoul collapsed eight per cent, and Taipei and Mumbai shed more than six per cent. Jakarta dropped five per cent, Tokyo, Sydney, Bangkok and Wellington lost more than two per cent, while Shanghai shed 2.1 per cent.

Manila plunged almost 25 per cent after reopening following a two-day suspension prompted by the outbreak but it later bounced back to sit 12 per cent down.

The sharp losses came in tandem with a rally in the dollar as investors scrambled for cash to pay debts or just stash away.

The pound is now wallowing around its lowest levels since the mid-1980s, while the greenback was up more than six per cent against the Australian dollar and more than three per cent on the South Korean won.

The New Zealand dollar and Russian ruble lost more than five per cent.

And AxiCorp’s Stephen Innes warned of further turmoil despite the historic moves by banks and governments. “Wartime economics is not going to help with everyone in lockdown sitting at home watching Netflix,” he said.

The ECB’s bazooka was the latest in a string of measures by central banks and governments aimed at supporting the global economy, which has amounted to almost USD 2 trillion.

Still, the measures have not been enough to soothe panic-stricken investors and analysts say more must be done. Soon after the ECB announcement, French President Emmanuel Macron called for more fiscal action from leaders.

“It is up to us European states to be ready through budgetary interventions and greater financial solidarity within the eurozone,” tweeted Macron.

Australia’s central bank became the latest to move, slashing interest rates to a record low on Thursday.

The latest rout in Asia followed another day of carnage on Wall Street, where the Dow ended down more than six per cent and below 20,000 for the first time since 2017 as traders feared that the spiralling pandemic could tip the world into a severe and long-lasting recession.

The ECB move also had a dramatic effect on the oil market, with the price of the US benchmark West Texas Intermediate up almost 17 per cent at nearly USD 24 a barrel, recouping much of the 24 per cent lost the day before. However, the commodity tracked the sell-off on other markets and lost a large chunk of those gains.

Oil markets have been hammered by collapsing demand as the virus prompts sweeping travel restrictions and business closures, and as major producers, Saudi Arabia and Russia engage in a price war.

“There is just extreme volatility in the market now as participants try to assess the economic impact of the coronavirus and what it means for oil demand,” Daniel Hynes, at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group, said.

“The high level of uncertainty around the hit to demand means that markets are going to continue to test these levels and invite some sort of reaction from producers.

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