Global share markets were headed for the worst week since the depths of the 2008 financial crisis as investors ditched risky assets on fears the coronavirus would become a pandemic and derail economic growth.
Hopes that the epidemic that started in China would be over in a few months and economic activity would return to normal have been shattered, as new infections reported around the world now surpass those in China.
The worsening global threat from the virus prompted investors to rapidly step up bets the United States Federal Reserve would need to cut interest rates as soon as next month to support economic growth.
“We don’t even need to wait for economic data to see how badly the economy is being hit. You can tell that the sales of airlines and hotels are already falling by a half or something like that,” said Tomoaki Shishido, senior economist at Nomura Securities.
“It is fair to say the impact of the coronavirus will be clearly much bigger than the US-China trade war. So the Fed does not have a reason to take a wait-and-see stance next month,” he said.
The MSCI All Country World Index fell 0.3 percent after a 3.3 percent drop on Thursday. So far this week it has lost 9.2 percent, on course for its biggest weekly decline since a 9.8 percent plunge in November 2008.
Wall Street shares led the rout as the S&P 500 fell 4.42 percent, its largest percentage drop since August 2011.
It has lost 12 percent since hitting a record close on February 19, marking its fastest correction ever in just six trading days while the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1,190.95 points, its biggest points drop ever.
The CBOE Volatility Index, often called the “fear index”, jumped to 39.16 on Thursday, the highest level in about two years, well out of the 11-20 range of recent months.
The index, which measures expected swings in US shares in the next 30 days, often shoots up to about 50 as bear market selling hits its heaviest although it approached 90 during the 2008-09 financial crisis.
In Asia, MSCI’s regional index excluding Japan shed 1.4 percent. Japan’s Nikkei gave up 3.3 percent on rising fears the Olympics planned in July-August may be called off due to the coronavirus.
Australian shares dropped 2.8 percent to a six-month low while South Korean shares shed 2.1 percent.
“The coronavirus now looks like a pandemic. Markets can cope even if there is big risk as long as we can see the end of the tunnel,” said Norihiro Fujito, chief investment strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities. “But at the moment, no one can tell how long this will last and how severe it will get.”
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the virus could become a pandemic as the outbreak spreads to the largest developed economies such as Germany and France.
The global rout knocked mainland Chinese shares lower, which have been relatively well supported this month, as new coronavirus cases in the country fell and Beijing doled out measures to shore up economic growth.
The CSI300 index of Shanghai and Shenzhen shares dropped 2.4 percent, on track to post its first weekly loss in three.
Fears of a significant economic slump sent oil prices to their lowest level in more than a year.
US crude futures fell 1.6 percent to $46.35 per barrel, having lost 13.2 percent so far on the week, which would be the deepest fall in more than five years.
As investors flocked to the safety of high-grade bonds, US yields plunged with the benchmark 10-year notes yield hitting a record low of 1.241 percent. It last stood at 1.274 percent.
That is well below the three-month bill yield of 1.439 percent , deepening the so-called inversion of the yield curve. Historically an inverted yield curve is one of the most reliable leading indicators of a US recession.
Expectations the Fed will cut interest rates to cushion the blow are rising in money markets. Analysts say Fed funds futures are now pricing in more than a 50 percent chance of a 25 basis point cut at the central bank’s March 17-18 meeting.
As investors rushed to safe assets, gold stood at $1,646.4, near the seven-year high of $1,688.9 hit earlier this month.
In currency markets, the yen rose to a three-week high of 109.33 to the US dollar and last stood at 109.40.
The euro stood at $1.0993, having jumped over 1 percent in the previous session, the biggest gain in more than two years as investors wound back bets against the currency versus the US dollar.