Dow sinks, virus pushes it to sharpest quarterly plunge in over three decades

(Reuters) – Wall Street’s three major indexes tumbled on Tuesday, with the Dow registering its biggest quarterly decline since 1987 and the S&P 500 suffering its deepest quarterly drop since the financial crisis on growing evidence of massive economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic.

In one of the fastest turns into a bear market, the S&P 500 and the Dow both ended the first quarter more than 20% below the end of 2019, as the health crisis worsened in the United States and brought business activity to a standstill.

It was also the S&P’s biggest first-quarter decline on record as consumers were advised to stay at home, leading businesses to announce temporary closures and massive staff furloughs.

As a result, economists have slashed 2020 growth expectations and investors, eying dismal quarterly financial reports, fear corporate defaults and mass layoffs would lead to a deep recession.

An unprecedented round of fiscal and monetary stimulus had helped equity markets edge higher last week following wild swings that saw the benchmark S&P 500 rise 9% and slump 12% in two consecutive sessions.

But this was not enough to give investors confidence.

“After the battering we’ve taken in the last month, people aren’t willing to make big bets in any direction right now, especially since we’ll have more insight from commentary in early earnings reports starting next week,” said Carol Schleif, deputy chief investment officer at Abbot Downing in Minneapolis.

Many investors were also likely being cautious ahead of the release of jobless claims data on Thursday and the March non-farm payroll report on Friday, said Steven DeSanctis, a strategist at Jefferies.

“We’re leading into the end of the week that’s going to have more of the fireworks,” he said.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average .DJI fell 410.32 points, or 1.84%, to 21,917.16, the S&P 500 .SPX lost 42.06 points, or 1.60%, to 2,584.59 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC dropped 74.05 points, or 0.95%, to 7,700.10.

The technology-heavy Nasdaq registered its biggest quarterly decline since the end of 2018.

The utilities .SPLRCU and real estate .SPLRCR sectors were among the biggest decliners on Tuesday, with 4% and 3% declines respectfully following a recent rally, when investors sought ways to weather the economic slump.

The energy index .SPNY rose nearly 1.6%, boosted by a rebound in prices on the day although crude oil benchmarks ended a volatile quarter with their biggest losses in history, as both U.S. and Brent futures were hammered throughout March by the coronavirus pandemic and the eruption of a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. [O/R]

After bouncing between gains and losses, the technology sector .SPLRCT ended the day down 1.9%.

Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a 1.25-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.04-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

The S&P 500 posted one new 52-week high and no new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 14 new highs and 37 new lows.

On U.S. exchanges 13.13 billion shares changed hands compared with the 15.75 billion average for the last 20 sessions.

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UK banks scrap dividends on coronavirus fears, pressure on bonuses

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s top banks said on Tuesday they would suspend dividend payments after pressure from the regulator, saving their capital as a buffer against expected losses from the economic fallout from the coronavirus.

Barclays (BARC.L), HSBC (HSBA.L), Lloyds Banking Group (LLOY.L), Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS.L), Standard Chartered (STAN.L) and the British arm of Spain’s Santander (SAN.MC) all halted payouts.

The lenders had been due to pay out over 8 billion pounds ($9.93 billion) between them in 2019 dividends, with HSBC the biggest payer at $4.2 billion.

The move came in response to a request from the Prudential Regulatory Authority (PRA), which also asked banks and insurers not to pay senior staff bonuses this year.

The lenders said they would not pay interim dividends for 2020 and scrapped planned 2019 payouts, but held off announcing changes to their executive pay policies.

The PRA said banks entered the epidemic, which has put Britain into lockdown, with strong capital positions, enough to withstand a severe UK and global recession.

“The bank has a strong capital base, but we think it is right and prudent, for the many businesses and people that we support, to take these steps now,” Barclays chairman Nigel Higgins said.

Banks pay out dividends as a means of rewarding shareholders and disposing of excess profits, but they have the option to retain the earnings instead to preserve their capital levels.

FOLLOWING ECB’S LEAD

The statements from British lenders come after the European Central Bank (ECB) last week asked euro zone lenders to skip dividend payments and share buybacks until October at the earliest, and use their profits to support the economy.

Several of Europe’s largest lenders, including UniCredit (CRDI.MI), and Societe Generale (SOGN.PA) have already announced they will hold off paying 2019 dividends for now.

However there are some hold outs. Swiss banking giants UBS (UBSG.S) and Credit Suisse (CSGN.S) have both said they plan to press ahead with 2019 dividends despite their home regulator urging caution over payouts.

The move to scrap 2019 shareholder distributions is expected to free up capital that banks can instead lend to businesses and consumers rocked by the Covid-19 pandemic.

But some analysts believe cancelling dividends could actually harm the supply of credit to the real economy.

“We note that euro area bank market capitalization fell on 30 March by the same as the 30 billion euros ‘saved’ by its dividend ban on Friday 27 March,” analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch said in a note to clients, referring to the ECB’s move.

The European Union’s banking watchdog said earlier on Tuesday that banks should be “conservative” in how they award bonuses to preserve capital and keep lending during the coronavirus pandemic.

However it stopped short of calling on banks to stop bonuses altogether.

Italy’s UniCredit and Spain’s BBVA have both said this week that their top management will waive their 2020 bonuses.

Standard Chartered signaled in a memo on Monday that the bank would likely cut its 2020 executive payouts.

PRA Chief Executive Sam Woods also wrote to heads of insurers, saying they should pay “close attention” to the need to protect policyholders and maintain safety and soundness when considering bonuses or dividends.

HSBC signaled a gloomy first quarter earnings season ahead for British banks, warning in its statement that it would see bad loans rising and revenues falling as the economic impact of the pandemic hits.

($1 = 0.8059 pounds)

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Zimbabwe locks down to fight coronavirus amid economic crisis

HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwe began a 21-day nationwide lockdown on Monday, following South Africa in implementing some of the world’s toughest anti-coronavirus measures likely to hurt an economy already suffering hyperinflation and food shortages.

But unlike neighboring South Africa, where many citizens defied calls to stay indoors, with some clashing with security forces at the weekend, Zimbabweans mostly stayed home.

Zimbabwe has recorded just seven coronavirus cases and one death, but the government announced a range of financial measures to help fight the epidemic and said it was unfreezing 4,000 posts in the health sector.

Central Harare’s streets were deserted. Banks, government offices and businesses were shut. Zimbabwean police, who have a reputation for brutality, manned checkpoints on highways into the capital and questioned the few motorists.

In the poor township of Mbare, vegetable markets and the inter-city bus rank were closed and rows of wooden stalls used by vegetable vendors abandoned.

Nearby, six men sat outside their flat drinking gin. Fox Dhalu, a 36-year-old father of three, complained that some shops had hiked prices over the weekend.

“The government gave us short notice to prepare for this coronavirus lockdown. We are very angry about this,” he said.

A few blocks from the police station in the middle class suburb of Mabelreign, 73-year-old grandmother Angela Nerwande sat on an improvised stool selling vegetables on her stall.

“What will my grandchildren eat if I stay at home? “At my age I am not afraid of dying. If they want to arrest me let them come,” she said.

In a statement, Zimbabwe Police Spokesman Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said: “The law is very clear, those who don’t comply will be arrested and prosecuted.”

WATER CANNON

In South Africa, many of the most vulnerable people have struggled to maintain the lockdown, and people in poor, overcrowded townships have continued to mingle, sometimes prompting security forces to use water cannon to break them up.

State broadcaster SABC aired videos of soldiers humiliating people, making them do squats and pulling one along the ground with a wire. Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told the channel they should not use excessive force.

“We want our security services to partner with our communities to stop the spread of coronavirus,” she said.

South African police said a policeman and security guard had shot a man dead during the coronavirus lockdown.

In a bid to ease the impact, South Africa relaxed restrictions on taxis during rush hour and made early social security payments to the elderly.

“We are scared of being sick but there is nothing we can do, what are we going to eat? We are here to get paid so we can buy food,” said Maryjane Jinethi, 66, as she queued in Soweto for her check.

South Africa has 1,280 cases, and two deaths, as of Monday compared with an African total of 4,894.

In Nigeria’s capital Abuja and the main city Lagos, those who could afford to stock up queued at shops ahead of a 14-day lockdown starting at 11 p.m. (2200 GMT). [nL8N2BN5MC]

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Hard times shape speedy Saudi and Kuwaiti coronavirus response

RIYADH/KUWAIT (Reuters) – The world’s last major coronavirus outbreak, in 2012, began in Saudi Arabia, where a faltering response allowed the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) to kill several hundred people and spread across the region.

This time around, the kingdom was better prepared, public health officials say. Their experience of MERS meant hospitals had already established separate triage units for respiratory illnesses, with specialized ventilation to protect medics from infection.

At least two hospitals also had drive-thru testing in place, which the United States is scrambling to implement, and seven weeks before the first domestic case, authorities developed guidelines to deal with the new virus.

“Their experience with MERS uniquely positioned them because they learned a lot from that,” said Joanna Gaines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which for years has supplied the Saudi health ministry with its only full-time foreign disease expert.

“They know it’s MERS season and they’re already cued up for that. The preparation and processes … really cuts down on your exposure right away.”

Saudi Arabia and neighboring Kuwait took drastic measures early on to contain the new pandemic, halting air travel, imposing curfews, and quarantining and testing thousands of people.

Saudi Arabia has reported 1,453 infections and eight deaths while Kuwait recorded no fatalities among 266 cases. Initial outbreaks in both countries were linked to foreign travel.

It’s still too early to tell whether those efforts have contained the disease, but the health officials said authorities are doing the best they can by severing the transmission chain.

UNIQUE EXPERTISE

The World Health Organization said Saudi Arabia’s “whole of government” approach had benefited from the MERS experience and “unique expertise” in emergency preparedness from managing the haj pilgrimage, the world’s largest annual gathering of Muslims.

Riyadh is trying to replicate the kingdom’s haj inter-ministerial coordination in its fight against the coronavirus through the Saudi Center for Disease Prevention and Control, conceived in 2013 but not fully operational until 2018.

“It is a coordination oversight center…that gave more maturity to public health services in the country,” senior Saudi epidemiologist Sami Almudarra told Reuters.

Kuwait also has experience with national health emergencies, from the oil well fires after the 1990 Iraqi invasion to fears of biological and chemical warfare during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

It took precautionary measures soon after reporting its first case on Feb. 24, a week before Saudi Arabia.

The luxury Khiran resort and five-star Al-Kout Beach Hotel have become quarantine centers and the international fairgrounds are being used for testing and as a field hospital.

Kuwait’s parliament, the most outspoken in a region dominated by autocratic rulers, was initially critical of the government response but has since praised the health minister and by extension Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah, facing his first crisis as premier.

“Continuous parliamentary pressure made government institutions feel they must perform,” said Nada Al-Mutawa, management professor at the Australian College of Kuwait.

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IMF says ECB, ESM support key to strong EU coronavirus response

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The International Monetary Fund said on Monday the relaxation of the euro zone’s fiscal rules and support from the European Central Bank and the European Stability Mechanism is critical to a strong regional response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The determination of euro area leaders to do what it takes to stabilize the euro should not be underestimated,” IMF European Department Director Poul Thomsen said in a blog post on the IMF website.

He said large-scale interventions by the ECB and European leaders’ call for the ESM to supplement national fiscal efforts can allow countries with high public debt to react forcefully to the crisis.

Europe’s major economies are losing 3% of GDP output for every month that key sectors are shut down to try to slow the spread of the virus, and “a deep European recession this year is a foregone conclusion,” Thomsen said.

On Friday, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said the global economy was already in recession and countries must respond with “very massive” spending to avoid a cascade of bankruptcies and emerging market debt defaults.

Thomsen said in his blog on Monday that the IMF’s main regional concern was with smaller countries outside the European Union, where the lack of depth of financial markets and limited access to external capital will make it difficult to finance large increases in their fiscal deficits.

He said most of the nine non-EU emerging economies in central and eastern Europe – excluding Russia and Turkey – are seeking IMF emergency funding from a $50 billion pool available in rapidly disbursing programs for coronavirus responses.

“More countries are likely to follow in what is already the largest number of requests for assistance ever received by the IMF at one time,” Thomson said, adding that the Fund was “dramatically streamlining” internal rules and procedures to respond with speed, agility and scale to the crisis.

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New Orleans doctors scramble as coronavirus deaths, cases soar

(Reuters) – Emergency room doctor Thomas Krajewski stopped at the hospital room door at 2 a.m. to glance at the chart. He knew instantly the long odds faced by the patient inside: A man in his 70s, with a fever, short of breath.

“Do you mind calling my son?” the patient asked him. “My two grandsons tomorrow morning are going to crawl in my bed because they wake me up on the weekends, and if I’m not there, they will wonder.”

Twelve hours later, the man needed a ventilator. After a day, his kidneys started to fail. In three days, he was dead – one of 151 people who had succumbed to COVID-19 in Louisiana by late Sunday. The state has confirmed 3,540 cases since March 9 – among the world’s fastest-growing infection rates. That pace, Governor John Bel Edwards has said, signals that the state could become the next Italy, with overwhelmed hospitals forced to turn patients away.

Frontline health workers scrambled to prepare for that grim prophecy as patients started to stream through their doors last week. The governor said on Face the Nation Sunday that the state has only a tiny fraction of the about 13,000 ventilators it will need, and that it has yet to receive federal approval to tap a national stockpile. In New Orleans, the state’s epicenter, authorities are setting up a field hospital to handle the expected overflow of patients at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center – the same site where thousands of Hurricane Katrina refugees suffered in 2005.

Then as now, many doctors fear they won’t get enough supplies and support to keep up with the deluge of victims. This time they are fighting a pathogen that threatens them – and their families – every time they extend a hand to help a patient.

Krajewski, a 31-year-old Cincinnati native who is just two years out of residency, works the overnight shift at St. Bernard Parish Hospital, in a working class suburb just east of the city. After work, Krajewski comes home to his newborn son, Cal, just three weeks old, and his wife Genevieve. He strips off his clothes on the porch before entering his house. He drops his glasses and phone into a small UV light sterilizer and heads straight to the shower.

“I come home – and I’m horrified,” Krajewski said. “I’m wearing an N95 respirator-level face mask anytime I’m near my child, and that is after I’ve fully decontaminated.”

Doctors across New Orleans are calling colleagues in New York and Seattle, sharing intelligence on the virus. They trade suggestions on how to hook two patients up to a single respirator. Some health workers are renting out apartments to quarantine themselves from their families, said Joseph Kanter, an emergency room physician and lead public health official for the New Orleans area.

“They’re using all these stop-gap measures” to protect themselves, said Kanter, calling it a “damning indictment” of the nation’s lack of preparedness for such a pandemic.

‘IT CAN HAPPEN TO ME’

With more than 141,000 infected and nearly 2,500 dead in the United States, health workers in hard-hit places like New Orleans are feeling the strain of taking in hundreds of contagious patients who often deteriorate quickly.

While older patients are by far the most at-risk, some Louisiana doctors say they have been shocked at the severity of some cases in which younger people have just one underlying condition, such as hypertension or diabetes. Some patients in their 30s or 40s have been quickly put on life support, said Jeff Elder, an emergency physician at University Medical Center in downtown New Orleans.

Such cases are worrisome because doctors are still struggling to understand why certain younger patients are hit so much harder than others – and because they make younger caregivers fear for their own safety.

“You treat them and think, ‘If it is happening to him, it can happen to me,’” said Elder, who is 40.

EXPONENTIAL RISE

Louisiana’s soaring infection rates mean some hospitals will have to start turning away patients in the next week unless statewide efforts to curtail social contact start to show an impact, Governor Edwards has said. The governor’s pleas for residents to stay home in daily news conferences have become increasingly laced with anger and frustration.

“It’s not that hard to understand!” Edwards said on Friday, talking about what awaits New Orleans. “The trajectory we’re on right now takes us to a place where we cannot meet the demands on our health care system.”

Even as fears rise inside overtaxed hospitals, caregivers are working in an unsettling silence. Many have bans or severe limitations on visiting family members, who normally fill their hallways with conversation, comforting loved ones and waiting on scraps of news.

Patients with COVID-19 suffer quietly, too. In survival mode, they focus almost solely on breathing. Fevers make them sweat through their hospital gowns as they sit upright in bed, the position that makes it easiest to breathe. Ventilators hum in the background.

Krajewski decided early in college to become a doctor, in part because of a self-described hero complex. In his young career, he has thrived on seeing patients get well in response to his treatments.

That’s all changed in the last few days. He has put about a dozen patients on life support, and only one has come off. Five have died.

“There is a sense of gravity when you know you are one of the last people that will talk to somebody,” Krajewski said. “Those conversations are happening more often.”

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In Jerusalem, a Palestinian family under coronavirus lockdown

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A Palestinian English teacher, Jizelle Sara, faces a double challenge while observing a partial lockdown in her Jerusalem home during the coronavirus crisis.

Not only does she have to find ways to keep her own children busy, but she has to ensure her pupils are up to date with schoolwork online.

“Teaching online is not easy at all since you have to connect and follow up with the girls remotely and not face-to-face – and besides, the kids are at home 24/7,” said Sara, 42.

Like families staying at home all over the world as part of efforts to halt the spread of coronavirus, the Saras pass the time with their children with online worksheets, exercise, coloring books and computer games.

“You have to keep them busy all of the time,” said Sara, whose children are aged five, six and 11.

Sara’s husband, Victor, a receptionist at a hotel closed by the lockdown, sees a bright side.

“Today we are gathered all together as a family, which is a very positive thing, that the person stays and sees his children, plays with them and cares for them, when work would usually have unfortunately taken us away from our family,” said Victor, 41.

“I think we are stronger than corona. Everyone can be stronger than corona,” said Victor. “Of course there is some boredom, but we shall overcome this boredom and overcome this with good health and peace.”

Israel has reported more than 4,000 coronavirus infections and 15 deaths. Authorities have tightened a partial lockdown, requiring citizens to stay within 100 meters (110 yards) of home and setting sanctions for defying rules.

In the Palestinian territories, 108 cases and one death have been confirmed.

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Wall Street set to open higher as investors weigh stimulus against shutdown

(Reuters) – Wall Street was set to open slightly higher on Monday as President Donald Trump followed last week’s massive fiscal stimulus by extending his stay-at-home guidelines, leaving investors guessing at their economic impact.

The S&P 500 .SPX posted its biggest weekly percentage gain in over a decade last week, while the Dow Jones .DJI its best since 1938, thanks to the record $2.2 trillion in aid agreed by officials.

All three major stock indexes, however, ended Friday more than 3% lower after the United States overtook China as the country with the most number of coronavirus cases.

The crisis has so far knocked $7.4 trillion off the value of S&P 500 companies and without any clarity on how long it will take to quell the outbreak, Wall Street’s main indicators of future volatility remain at high levels.

“There is no way to gauge the short-term direction of markets right now when there is still so much uncertainty,” said David Bahnsen, chief investment officer of Bahnsen Group in California.

“The shape of the inevitable economic recovery is unknown and will be for weeks or months.”

Trump on Sunday dropped a hotly criticized plan to get the economy up and running again by mid-April after White House health experts argued strongly with him to extend the stay-at-home order so the country could start seeing the rates of infection come down.

JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N) said on Saturday it expected real U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) to fall 10% in the first quarter and plunge 25% in the second quarter.

The CBOE volatility index dipped on Monday, but was still near levels far above those in 2018 and 2019.

“Until we’ve got some evidence that can help deal with the virus, it’s probably more choppy markets ahead,” said Noah Hamman, chief executive office of AdvisorShares in Bethesda, Maryland.

At 08:41 a.m. ET, Dow e-minis 1YMcv1 were up 139 points, or 0.65%, S&P 500 e-minis EScv1 were up 23.5 points, or 0.92% and Nasdaq 100 e-minis NQcv1 were up 78.25 points, or 1.03%.

Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N) rose 4.5% as the drugmaker announced plans to start human testing of its experimental coronavirus vaccine by September

Abbott Laboratories (ABT.N) was the top gainer among S&P 500 components, rising nearly 10% after it won U.S. approval for a diagnostic test that can detect coronavirus in minutes.

General Motors Co (GM.N) rose 5% as Trump praised the automaker’s ventilator production after he invoked emergency powers to compel the manufacturing of badly needed equipment to tackle the pandemic.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd (NCLH.N), Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd (RCL.N) and Carnival Corp (CCL.N) slumped after Berenberg slashed its price targets on cruise operators by about a third.

Oil majors Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N) and Chevron Corp (CVX.N) fell over 2% as U.S. crude prices fell below $20 for the first time in 18 years.

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Austria to ban tourist stays at hotels to stem coronavirus spread

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria is banning the use of hotels for tourism as part of wide-ranging efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus with Easter holidays approaching, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said on Monday.

“A third point are hotels, with regard to the Easter holidays … We want to stop the touristic use of hotels for this phase,” Anschober told a government news conference.

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Indonesia president plans stricter rules on mobility, social distancing

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesian President Joko Widodo said on Monday he plans to impose stricter limits on mobility between regions and also to implement a large-scale policy of social distancing to help curb the spread of coronavirus.

“In implementing the policy of large scale social distancing, I ask that a regulation is prepared for clear guidance for provincial level governments,” Widodo said at the opening of a cabinet meeting.

Presidential spokesman Fadjroel Rachman said via Twitter Widodo was embarking on “a new stage of war against COVID-19, which is large scale social distancing with health quarantines.”

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