Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shortly after the closing bell in New York, the US, on March 13 2020. Picture: REUTERS/LUCAS JACKSON
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shortly after the closing bell in New York, the US, on March 13 2020. Picture: REUTERS/LUCAS JACKSON

London/Sydney — Stock markets were routed and the dollar stumbled on Monday after the Federal Reserve slashed US interest rates in an emergency move and its major peers offered cheap US dollars in a bid to prevent global lending markets seizing up.

The drastic manoeuvres were aimed at cushioning the economic effect as the breakneck spread of the coronavirus all but shut down more countries, but they had limited success in calming panicky investors.

Europe, which has become the epicentre of the outbreak, saw its main stock markets plunge nearly 8% in brutal opening trade. Earlier, Wall Street futures for the S&P 500 index had hit their down-limit in the first 15 minutes of Asian trading as investors rushed for safety.

“The central banks threw the kitchen sink at it yesterday evening yet here we are [with deep falls in stock markets],” said Societe Generale strategist Kit Juckes.

“There is a great sense that central banks are going to get to grips with the issues of getting money flowing.... But the human problem, the macro problem, there is nothing they can do about that.”

The Fed’s emergency 100 basis point rate cut on Sunday was followed on Monday by further policy easing from the Bank of Japan (BoJ) in the form of a pledge to ramp up purchases of exchange traded funds and other risky assets.

New Zealand’s central bank also shocked by cutting rates 75 basis points to 0.25%, while the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) pumped more money into its financial system. South Korea cut rates and Russia rushed together a $4bn anticrisis fund.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Group of Seven (G7) leaders would hold a teleconference at 2pm GMT to discuss the crisis.

MSCIÆs index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan tumbled 4% to lows not seen since early 2017, while the Nikkei fell 2% as the BoJ’s easing steps failed to reassure markets.

Chinese data underscored just how much economic damage the disease has already done to the world’s second-largest economy, with official numbers showing the worst drops in activity on record. Industrial output plunged 13.5% and retail sales 20.5%.

In Asia, Shanghai blue chips fell 3% overnight even as China’s central bank surprised with a fresh round of liquidity injections into the financial system. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index tumbled 3.4%.

Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 plunged, finishing down 9.7% — its steepest fall since the 1987 crash.

“By any historical standard, the scale and scope of these actions was extraordinary,” said Nathan Sheets, chief economist at PGIM Fixed Income, who helps manage $1.3-trillion in assets. “This is dramatic action and truly does represent a bazooka.

“Even so, markets were expecting extraordinary action, so it remains to be seen whether the announcement will meaningfully shift market sentiment.”

Sheets emphasised investors wanted to see a lot more US fiscal stimulus and evidence the Trump administration was responding vigorously and effectively to the public health challenges posed by the crisis. “The performance of the economy and the markets will be mainly determined by the severity and duration of the virus outbreak,” he said.

Under strain

Markets have been severely strained as bankers, companies and individual investors stampede into cash and safe-haven assets while selling profitable positions to raise money to cover losses in savaged equities.

To ease the dislocation, the Fed cut interest rates by a full percentage point on Sunday to a target range of 0% to 0.25%, its second cut in March, and promised to expand its balance sheet by at least $700bn in coming weeks.

Five of its peers also joined up to offer cheap US dollar funding for financial institutions facing stress in credit markets.

US President Donald Trump, who has been haranguing the Fed to ease policy, called the move “terrific” and “very good news”.

“It may be a shot in the arm for risk assets and help to address liquidity concerns ... however, it also raises the question of whether the Fed has anything left in the tank should the spread of the virus not be contained,” said Kerry Craig, global market strategist at JPMorgan Asset Management.

“We really need to see the fiscal side ... to prevent a longer than needed economic slowdown.”

The Fed’s rate cut combined with the promise of more bond-buying pushed US 10-year treasury yields down sharply, to 0.68% from 0.95% late on Friday.

It was a different story in Europe, where southern European bond yields jumped to multimonth highs as investors continued to worry about the rapid spread of the virus there.

Spanish and Portuguese 10-year bond yields rose to nine-and-a-half-month highs at 0.74% and 0.93% respectively, up as much as 13 basis points on the day.

French 10-year yields also soared as much as 14 basis points to three-and-a-half-month highs at 0.14%, while Italian 10-year yields were up 17 basis points at 1.98%.

“The momentum we’ve seen in the periphery is largely to do with the sentiment towards debt metrics in countries which after many, many years of quantitative easing and existing central bank support within the eurozone, are going into another fairly significant if not larger crisis than the one before,” said Rabobank strategist Matt Cairns.

The fall in US treasury yields had pressured the dollar early on Monday, though it regained some ground later on. It was last down 1.6% on the Japanese yen at ¥106.37. The euro was up almost 1% at $1.1212.

The commodity-exposed Australian dollar fell as much as 0.3% to $0.6166 while the New Zealand dollar slipped 0.2% to $0.6044.

Oil, already reeling from a price war, fell further on concerns about the effect of coronavirus on global demand. Brent crude was last off $2.21, or 6.5% at $31.64 a barrel while US crude slipped $1.64 to $30.94 a barrel. Gold rallied 0.8% to $1,541.34.

Reuters