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Asian stocks sink after oil prices plunge amid coronavirus fears

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                                Men walk past an electronic stock board showing Japan’s Nikkei 225 index at a securities firm in Tokyo Monday.


    Men walk past an electronic stock board showing Japan’s Nikkei 225 index at a securities firm in Tokyo Monday.

BEIJING >> Asian stock markets plunged Monday after oil prices nosedived on worries the global economy, weakened by a virus outbreak, might be awash in too much crude.

Tokyo’s benchmark tumbled 5.5%, while Sydney fell 7.3%. Seoul sank 4% and Hong Kong lost 3.6%. Thailand’s SET plummeted 6.8%. Shares also sank in Middle East trading on Sunday.

The latest jolt came from Saudi Arabia, Russia and other oil producers arguing over how much to cut output to prop up prices.

Investors usually welcome lower energy costs for industries and consumers, but in the current atmosphere of anxiety, they were rattled by the abrupt plunge.

“Now that oil spark that really started the selling this morning, it wouldn’t in normal times be as big a deal but coming in as it does at this stage of the market cycle, it sparked real fear among investors and we are seeing wholesale panic across the market today,” said Michael McCarthy of CMC Markets.

Investors already were on edge about the mounting costs of the coronavirus outbreak that began in China and has disrupted travel and trade. Anxiety rose after Italy announced it was isolating cities and towns with some 16 million people, or more than one quarter of its population.

“Investors should brace for volatility,” James Trafford of Fidelity International said in a report.

A recovery in oil and stock prices “will require some stabilization in the coronavirus data points” or signs of agreement among crude producers, Trafford said.

Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 fell to 20,347.19 after the government reported the economy contracted 7% in the October-December quarter, worse than the original estimate of a 6.3% decline. That was before the viral outbreak slammed tourism and travel but after a sales tax hike dented consumers’ appetite for spending.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng sank to 25,321.28. The Shanghai Composite Index was off 2.4% at 2,989.21. The S&P-ASX 200 in Sydney fell to 6,132.6. The Kospi in Seoul declined to 1,989.50.

India’s Sensex lost 4.3% to 35,983.91. Markets in Taiwan, New Zealand and Southeast Asia also declined.

Benchmark U.S. crude fell 32%, or $13.23, to $28.05 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude, the international standard, lost 30%, or $13.44, to $33.83 per barrel in London.

Investors have been shifting into Japanese yen, long considered a safe haven, and on Monday the dollar sank to 102.56 yen from Friday’s 105.29 yen. The euro advanced to $1.1421 from $1.1285.

Companies have been hit by travel and other controls that are spreading worldwide as the global number of coronavirus infections rose past 110,000 worldwide.

Apple Inc. says slowdowns in manufacturing iPhones in China will hurt its sales totals. An airline industry group says carriers could lose as much as $113 billion in potential ticket sales.

Adding to pessimism, China reported Saturday that its exports fell 17% and imports were off 4% from a year earlier in January and February after Beijing shut factories, offices and shops in the most severe anti-disease measures ever imposed.

Central banks worldwide have cut interest rates. But economists warn that while that might help to encourage consumer and corporate spending, it cannot reopen factories that are due to quarantines or a lack of workers and raw materials.

Investors are looking ahead to a meeting Thursday of the European Central Bank, which is widely expected to announce new stimulus measures.

Chinese factories that make the world’s smartphones, toys and other consumer goods are gradually reopening but aren’t expected to return to normal production until at least April. That weighs on demand for imports of components and raw materials from China’s Asian neighbors.

Already last week, global stocks were sinking as the spread of the virus prompted governments to follow China’s lead by imposing travel controls and canceling public events.

The U.S. Federal Reserve’s emergency 0.5% cut in its key lending rate failed to reverse the downturn.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury, already at record lows, has dropped to 0.53% from 0.7% late Friday.

The yield — the difference between a bond’s market price and what investors will receive if they hold it to maturity — is an indicator of the market’s outlook on the economy. Rising market prices that cause the yield to narrow indicate investors are shifting money into bonds as a safe haven.

“Global recession risks have risen,” Moody’s Investors Service said in a report. “A sustained pullback in consumption, coupled with extended closures of businesses, would hurt earnings, drive layoffs and weigh on sentiment.”

On Wall Street, the benchmark S&P 500 fell 1.7% on Friday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 1% and the Nasdaq composite, which has a large share of technology companies, fell 1.9%.

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