Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on March 18 2020 in New York City, the US. Picture: AFP/GETTY IMAGES/SPENCER PLATT
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on March 18 2020 in New York City, the US. Picture: AFP/GETTY IMAGES/SPENCER PLATT

Singapore — The dollar surged, bonds plunged and global markets struggled to find their footing on Thursday as the European Central Bank’s latest promise of stimulus provided only brief solace while the world struggles to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

US stock futures fell 2%. The Australian dollar was crushed, falling 3.3% to a more than 17-year low, and Asian markets gave up initial gains made after the ECB had announced a bond-buying programme.

By midmorning, MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan had fallen 4% to an almost four-year low. Australia’s benchmark erased an early 3% rise to trade 2% in the red.

Korea’s Kospi fell 6% and the won hit a decade-low even as the central bank was buying dollars to prop up the currency. Markets in Hong Kong and China fell.

“We’re in this phase where investors are just looking to liquidate their positions,” said Prashant Newnaha, senior interest rate strategist at TD Securities in Singapore.

Overnight on Wall Street, the S&P 500 fell 5% and is down nearly 30% over a month. Household-name blue chips plunged, with General Motors and Boeing, each symbols of US industrial might, losing more than 17% in a single day.

The ECB on Wednesday pledged to buy €750bn ($820bn) in bonds through 2020, with Greek debt and non-financial commercial paper eligible under the programme for the first time.

It follows emergency interest rate cuts around the globe, enormous fiscal support packages and six central banks promising discount dollars to alleviate a squeeze in greenback funding.

But so far none of it has been able to put a floor under dire sentiment, and some $15-trillion in shareholder value has been wiped out in little more than a month of heavy selling.

“Liquidity is not the problem this time around,” said Michael McCarthy, chief market strategist at brokerage CMC Markets in Sydney.

“This is about the impact on demand and the disruption of global supply chain ... [bond buying] is not speaking directly to the key problem for markets.”

Sell everything

Selling extended across almost all asset classes. Benchmark 10-year sovereign bond yields in Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Korea and Singapore and Thailand surged.

In currency markets, everything except the dollar and — thanks to the ECB, the euro — collapsed. Sterling fell 1% to $1.1495. The New Zealand dollar fell 3% to $0.5540 and the Aussie was pounded to $0.5592.

The Reserve Bank of Australia is due to make an out-of-cycle policy announcement at 3.30am GMT at which it is expected to cut rates and introduce quantitative easing for the first time.

US 10-year treasuries, usually a haven in times of turmoil, were steady but have suffered their sharpest two-day sell-off in nearly 20 years.

Gold is down 3% for the week.

“I’d say the market is uninvestable at this point,” said Daniel Cuthbertson, MD at Value Point Asset Management in Sydney. “Until we get a containment of global contractions, the market is just going to be directionless.”

And the virus outbreak has worsened. Italy on Wednesday reported the largest single-day death toll increase from coronavirus since the outbreak began in China in late 2019.

It has killed more than 8,700 people globally, infected more than 212,000 and prompted emergency lockdowns on a scale not seen in living memory.

Investors are looking to a March German sentiment survey due at 9am GMT and US jobless figures for early signals on how the virus is hitting two of the world’s economic powerhouses.

The US economy could shrink 14% next quarter, a JPMorgan economist said on Wednesday, one of the most dire calls yet on the potential hit to the US.

Oil bounced back in Asian trade, with US crude last up 12% to $22.73 and Brent up $1.66 to $26.54.

Reuters