February 14, 2020 / 9:23 AM / 2 months ago

Daily Briefing: Virus victim count rises - and so do global stocks

(Reuters) - China's announcement of more than 5,000 new coronavirus cases and 121 new deaths indicate the epidemic hasn't peaked yet. A Reuters poll forecasts Chinese growth of 4.5% in the first quarter, recovering to 5.5% for the whole year - the worst showing since at least 1990. Yet markets refuse to be too discouraged. A pan-European index is in fact opening at record highs, buoyed by … answers on a postcard.

Workers in protective suits disinfect a commercial complex with sanitizing equipment, following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the country, in Beijing's Sanlitun, China February 13, 2020. China Daily via REUTERS

The thinking appears to be the virus impact will not last, it’s not spreading outside China as fast as feared and above all, central banks can step in — slower growth will bring more stimulus, or at least lower interest rates for longer. That makes shares more appealing. The virus causes a near-term demand shock, of course, but it’s a problem easily solved by central bank liquidity, is the message from research notes.

A frisson of nervousness is still running through the market. What’s leading the bull charge, at least in Europe, are defensive plays such as utilities or pharma. The Swiss franc remains at four-and-a-half-year highs versus the euro and the Japanese yen has not slipped much against the dollar. Emerging markets continue to underperform and the dollar continues to stand tall, possibly as capital flees Asian economies. The dollar index is set for a second week of gains, after posting its biggest weekly rise last week since June 2018.

But Chinese mainland shares have rallied; they closed 0.4% higher today and are up 9% since their Feb. 4 plunge. S&P 500 futures are also higher. World stocks are flat today after last night’s lower Wall Street close, but they are still heading for a second week of gains.

Data today is likely to show the German economy grew a few basis points in the fourth quarter. Weak euro zone gross domestic product is also expected -- 0.1%. The lacklustre growth is dragging the euro down, pushing it to three-year lows and threatening the 1.08 barrier. Forecast downgrades are coming in thick and fast -- one bank sees euro/dollar at $1.07 in 12 months’ time versus a previous prediction of $1.15.

U.S. retail sales for January may be of more interest. U.S. private consumption growth was slowing even before the virus scare, something the Federal Reserve has noted. But the United States still seem to be the only developed economy resisting the virus - data and company earnings have been hitting expectations, more or less. The current earnings season has seen 71.2% of U.S. companies beat estimates. In the UK, sterling has settled down after Thursday’s surge and gilt yields have eased. Europe’s STOXX 600 index is powering to yet another record high.

In corporate news, Renault shares are down 3.5% after the French carmaker reported its first loss in a decade and set a lower operating margin goal for 2020. Astrazeneca and Schindler are seen falling 2% to 3% after they reported below-consensus results and warned that coronavirus is likely to hurt their 2020 performance. European tech stocks could benefit after U.S. chipmaker Nvidia beat earnings forecasts. In the UK, RBS is down more than 5%. The bank reported better-than-expected results and a strong capital position but disappointed investors with its dividend and a 900 million-pound provision to compensate customers for mis-sold loan insurance. Wirecard's EBITDA missed expectations; Credit Agricole is down 0.7% despite an earnings beat; EDF shares are up 8% after it beat forecasts.

Emerging-market stocks headed for weekly gains, some currencies suffered: the Brazilian real reached a record low and Turkey’s lira a nine-month low. Most of the main Asian currencies fell.

Argentine Economy Minister Martin Guzman said the government was willing to pay its debts but did not have the money to do so, warning of a “a deep debt restructuring” ahead.

A look at the day ahead from EMEA deputy markets editor Sujata Rao. The views expressed are her own.

Reporting by Sujata Rao, editing by Larry King

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