Asian shares advance, US crude oil sinks below USD19

BANGKOK (AP) – Shares advanced in Asia yesterday while United States (US) benchmark crude plunged below USD19 per barrel.

The mixed reaction followed news that China’s economy contracted 6.8 per cent in the last quarter from a year earlier as the country battled the coronavirus. It is the worst downturn since 1979 but better than some analysts had feared.

The rollover of the future contract for benchmark US crude oil, from May to June delivery, brought a sharp technical dip in the price, which sank as much as 8.5 per cent.

By mid-afternoon in Bangkok, it was down USD1.61 at USD18.26 per barrel, it’s lowest level since 2002. Brent crude, the international standard, gave up 12 cents to USD27.70 per barrel.

Demand for oil has plunged as countries close down industries and halt travel to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Currency traders watch the computer monitors at the foreign exchange dealing room of the KEB Hana Bank headquarters in Seoul, South Korea. PHOTO: AP

An agreement among oil producers on cutting output that was reached earlier this week helped calm recent volatility in the market. But it was not seen as adequate given the glut of oil developing as output outstrips demand and threatens to overwhelm storage capacity.

The economic data released by China yesterday were not as bad as the double-digit declines some analysts had forecast, though the latest numbers suggest the recovery will be a slow one.

“The March data add to broader signs that China’s economy is past the worst. But the recovery will probably continue to underwhelm,” Julian Evans-Pritchard of Capital Economics said in a commentary. He added that after an initial bounce as factories reopened, “the recovery in activity has since slowed to a crawl.”

Still, investors appeared to be focussing on the bright side. US futures pointed to further gains, with the contract for the S&P 500 up 2.9 per cent while the contract for the Dow industrials gained 3.1 per cent.

In early European trading, the CAC 40 in Paris jumped 3.5 per cent to 4,501.03 while Germany’s DAX climbed 3.2 per cent to 10,634.46. Britain’s FTSE 100 added 2.4 per cent to 5,764.08.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 index jumped 3.2 per cent to 19,897.26 as the country awaited an announcement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on expanding a national emergency to combat the coronavirus to the entire nation. He earlier only included Tokyo and several other worst affected areas.

Infections have continued to climb, surging past 10,000 if the number sickened on a cruise ship off the coast in February are included, and worries are growing that the nation’s health systems won’t be able to cope.

The government is planning to sweeten a renewed and expanded request for people to stay home, which is strictly voluntary, with cash payments of 100,000 yen (USD930).

In other trading, the Hang Seng in Hong Kong advanced 1.6 per cent to 24,380.00. The Shanghai Composite index gained 0.7 per cent to 2,838.49, while Australia’s S&P ASX 200 rose 1.3 per cent to 5,487.50. South Korea’s Kospi surged 3.1 per cent to 1,914.53 despite the release of data showing the country lost 195,000 jobs in March from a year earlier, ending a decade-long run in payroll gains.

India’s Sensex climbed 1.7 per cent to 31,119.74 after the central bank cut its benchmark interest rate by 25 basis points, to 3.75 per cent from four per cent, to help the stalled economy and ease financing troubles amid a nationwide lockdown to fight the pandemic.

“Human spirit is ignited by the resolve to curb the pandemic. It is during our darkest moments that we must focus on the light,” said Reserve Bank of India Governor Shaktikanta Das.

Other markets in Asia also advanced.

Overnight, the S&P 500 rose 0.6 per cent after flipping between small gains and losses following a government report that 5.2 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week. That brought the total for the last month to roughly 22 million.

But even in this new stay-at-home, increasingly jobless economy, some businesses are making out as clear winners, and gains for Amazon, healthcare companies and stocks in other pockets of the market kept the rally on track.

Companies like Dollar General, Walmart and Netflix have seen gains as people stuck at home stock up on stables.

Sentiment was lifted by news of White House guidelines outlining a phased approach to reopening businesses, schools and other areas of life.

Some optimistic investors are focussing on the massive aid for the economy promised by the Federal Reserve and the US government. They also point to recent signs that the outbreak may be levelling off in some of the world’s hardest-hit areas.

The duelling sentiments have helped the S&P 500 nearly halve its loss since falling from its record high in mid-February. Stocks were down by nearly 34 per cent in late March, but a recent rally has trimmed the loss to roughly 17 per cent.

Treasury yields remain extremely low, though, reflecting pessimism over the economic outlook.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury was at 0.64 per cent after falling to 0.60 per cent on Thursday. Yields fall when bond prices rise, and investors tend to bid up Treasurys when they’re worried about the economy.

The US dollar fetched 107.84 Japanese yen, down from 107.92 on Thursday. The euro slipped to USD1.0825 from USD1.0839.