Stocks, oil plunge over global fight for crude production

Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) — Global stock markets and oil prices plunged Monday after a fight among major crude-producing nations jolted investors who already were on edge about the surging costs of a virus outbreak.

The main stock indexes in Britain and Germany were down by almost 7 percent. Japan's benchmark closed down 5.1 percent while Australia's lost 7.3 percent and the Shanghai market in China was off 3 percent.

Trading in Wall Street futures was halted for this first time since the 2016 U.S. presidential election after they fell more than the daily limit of 5 percent. Bond yields hit new lows as investors bought them up as safe havens.

The benchmark U.S. crude price was down over 20 percent, the biggest daily drop since the Gulf war in 1991 to hit their lowest levels since 2016. They were down as much as 30 percent earlier, deepening a rout that began when Saudi Arabia, Russia and other major producers failed to agree on cutting output to prop up prices. A breakdown in their cooperation suggested they will ramp up output just as demand is sliding.

Investors usually welcome lower energy costs for businesses and consumers. But it can also hurt producers, such as oil companies. The last time crude prices fell this low, in 2015, the U.S. saw a raft of bankruptcies by smaller energy companies.

The abrupt plunge in markets added to the anxiety over the coronavirus, rattling markets and sending investors in search of safe havens like bonds.

"A blend of shocks have sent the markets into a frenzy on what may only be described as 'Black Monday,'" said Sebastien Clements, analyst at financial payments platform OFX.

"A combination of a Russia vs. Saudi Arabia oil price war, a crash in equities, and escalations in coronavirus woes have created a killer cocktail to worsen last week's hangover."

In Saudi Arabia, the Riyadh stock exchange suspended trading of state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco after its share price sank by the daily 10 percent limit at the opening. 

Investors already were on edge about the mounting costs of the coronavirus outbreak that began in China and has disrupted world 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, in its industrial and financial heartland.

On Wall Street, trading in futures for the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 was frozen after both fell by more than 5 percent, a daily limit. The last time they were frozen was just after U.S. President Donald Trump was elected in 2016.

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.

Those are the biggest percentage drops since January 1991, when the U.S. began air strikes on Iraq and unleashed strategic reserves to cope with the disruption to oil markets.

The International Energy Agency said in a report Monday that oil demand could fall this year for the first time since the global financial crisis in 2009.

"The oil price will stay low" in the $30s per barrel, IEA chief Fatih Birol said.

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.

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.

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 percent cut in its key lending rate failed to reverse the downturn and the yield on the 10-year Treasury, already at record lows, dipped under 0.40 percent from 0.7 percent late Friday. The 30-year yield fell below 1 percent for the first time ever.

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."

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