Asian markets drift lower on glum investor sentiment.
Markets fell in early Wednesday trading in Asia as investors digested a steady drip of worrying news about the economic ramifications of the global coronavirus outbreak.
Major indexes in Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea were modestly lower midday, as financial markets settled into a slow grind of bad news. While the panic of recent weeks appeared to have subsided, numerous signs pointed to glum prospects for a quick recovery.
After Wall Street’s Tuesday close, President Trump said at a news conference that the United States would face “a very painful, very very painful two weeks.” U.S. government scientists projected that the outbreak could kill up to 240,000 Americans.
Futures markets predicted Europe and the United States would open lower later on Wednesday. Prices for long-term U.S. Treasury bonds, a traditional investment safe haven, rose, as did gold futures. Oil prices were mixed.
By early afternoon, Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 index had slid 1.8 percent and the Hang Seng index in Hong Kong had dropped 0.9 percent. South Korea’s Kospi was down 0.1 percent. Markets in mainland China, which often move at odds with stocks elsewhere, were modestly higher, with the Shanghai Composite index rising 0.4 percent.
Wall Street’s stomach-churning month ends with a drop.
March was a month of head-snapping turns in financial markets: The S&P 500 suffered its worst one-day drop since 1987 before later recording its best three-day run since 1933, oil prices crashed, interest rates plunged and Wall Street’s more esoteric markets seized up.
The roller coaster came as investors found themselves overwhelmed by a shutdown of the world economy. Early in the month, the record-breaking, 11-year bull market ended, and trading was halted more than once to prevent a crash.
An enormous fiscal and policy response at the end of the month helped undo some of the worst of the damage. The S&P 500 recouped more than half of its losses in the final week of the month after lawmakers passed a $2 trillion spending package and the Federal Reserve said it would buy an unlimited amount of government-backed debt to keep markets functioning.
But even as stocks rebounded well off their lowest point, March was the worst month for the S&P 500 since October 2008, when investors feared a collapse of the economy in the wake of the global financial crisis. The S&P 500 fell 12.5 percent this month. The index is down 20 percent so far this year.
On Tuesday, stocks fell 1.6 percent.
Calmer markets do not mean the worst is over. As consumers stay home and factories shut down, millions of workers have lost their jobs. Economic data showing the scale of the damage has only just begun to roll in, and Wall Street analysts continue to downgrade expectations for the economy.
Inside the fast-moving market for masks.
The stakes are high, and so are the prices. Wholesale costs for N95 respirators, a crucial type of mask for protecting medical workers, have quintupled. Trans-Pacific airfreight charges have tripled.
Global desperation to protect front-line medical workers battling the coronavirus epidemic has spurred a mad global scramble for masks and other protective gear.
The White House announced over the weekend that it had organized 22 flights to airlift personal protection equipment. They are aimed at resupplying hospitals that are within 72 hours of running out of protection equipment, said Gregory Forrester, the chief executive of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.
“If any one of these planes don’t take off,” Mr. Forrester said, “that’s going to be an issue.”
China has become a major part of the solution. Already a giant in mask manufacturing, it has ramped up production to nearly 12 times its earlier level. It was a huge mobilization effort that involved redesigning freight train routes and sending large numbers of workers across the country in sealed buses.
The Chinese government has encouraged global deals, but buying and selling masks is no easy feat. Traders, some just weeks into their new but unstable careers, have to navigate confusion, fraud attempts, byzantine customs laws and other barriers.
New Japanese data points to growing risk to the country’s economy.
Japan’s factory activity in March slowed to its lowest rate in a decade and its manufacturers are increasingly pessimistic about the state of the country’s economy, data showed on Wednesday, in the latest indications of the pressure that the coronavirus is putting on Japanese businesses.
The country’s economy was already on the brink of a technical recession — two consecutive quarters of contraction — following a 7.1 percent drop in economic output in the final three months of last year.
But a gauge of factory output, known as the purchasing manager’s index, fell to 44.8 in a monthly survey by Jibun Bank and IHS Markit. A reading less than 50 indicates economic contraction.
The reading was the lowest level since 2009, when the country was grappling with the impact of the global financial crisis.
Separately, Japanese manufacturers’ concerns about the course of the economy over the coming three months have sharpened dramatically, turning negative for the first time since 2011, in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, according to a central bank survey of business conditions, known as the Tankan, that was released on Wednesday.
So far, Japan has managed to limit the spread of the coronavirus without resorting to the kinds of strict measures that have caused widespread economic shutdowns in the United States, China and Europe.
But plummeting demand from those areas and disruptions to global supply chains have nevertheless driven Japanese manufacturers to cut back production.
The Japanese automaker Subaru announced on Wednesday it was temporarily suspending activity in some of its factories at home and in the United States. The announcement followed similar decisions by other automakers, including Toyota, which announced last month that it would pause work at some domestic facilities.
A Chinese critic’s disappearance suggests a hard line on blaming the government.
Friends of Ren Zhiqiang, a well-known former property mogul and Communist Party member in China, say he has disappeared after writing an essay critical of the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The essay, which was shared widely within private internet message groups, never named Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, but it faulted the actions of a power-hungry “clown” and the Communist Party’s strict limits on free speech. It declared that the party should “wake up from ignorance” and oust the leaders holding it back, just as it did with the leaders known as the “Gang of Four” in 1976, ending the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.
The disappearance of Mr. Ren, a longtime critic of the Chinese government who amassed nearly 38 million Weibo followers before his account was deleted in 2016, adds to fears that China is sliding backward and abandoning the reforms that saved it from extreme poverty and international isolation. His fate suggests China’s leadership won’t tolerate criticism of its actions during the outbreak.
Public health officials pushed airlines to collect passenger data. They refused.
For 15 years, the U.S. government has been pressing airlines to prepare for a possible pandemic by collecting passengers’ contact information so that public health authorities could track down people exposed to a contagious virus.
The airlines have repeatedly refused, even this month as the coronavirus proliferated across the United States. Now the country is paying a price.
As the coronavirus spread into the United States earlier this year, the federal government was not able to get in touch with or monitor airline passengers who might have been exposed to the disease or were bringing it into new communities.
Airline executives and lobbyists have protested that it would be expensive and time-consuming for them to start collecting basic information like email addresses and phone numbers for all passengers.
Reporting was contributed by Ben Dooley, Li Yuan, Keith Bradsher, Carlos Tejada and Daniel Victor.