April 3, 2020 / 8:43 AM / 2 months ago

European stocks end lower as COVID-19 economic toll becomes clearer

(Reuters) - European shares ended down on Friday, closing the week lower as dismal business activity data heralded a deep economic and earnings recession due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

FILE PHOTO: The German share price index DAX graph is pictured at the stock exchange in Frankfurt, Germany, February March 18, 2020. REUTERS/Staff

The pan-European STOXX 600 index closed 1% in the red, with insurers .SXIP dragging the most after a European Union regulator asked them to suspend dividends and share buybacks to shore up liquidity.

The index fell about 0.6% for the week. Still, it appeared to have gained a measure of stability after sharp daily movements over the past month.

Composite data earlier in the day showed business activity in the euro zone contracted severely in March, with several analysts forecasting worse readings as most economies in the region shut down to curb the spread of the virus.

“We are entering a climate with lower or no dividends, fewer financial options, but most importantly, fewer jobs and lower output,” said Stephen Innes, a strategist at AxiCorp.

“Many small- and large-sized businesses will not survive this storm.”

With more than 1 million people now infected around the world and countries extending national lockdowns, economists expect euro area real GDP to shrink as much as 43% in the second quarter.

Bank stocks .SX7P fell 2.2%, and were the worst performing European sector for the week, shedding about 11%. The sector looked vastly less attractive after several banking majors suspended their dividend payouts earlier in the week.

Energy stocks .SXEP dragged on the STOXX 600, relinquishing most of their gains from Thursday after a record spike in oil prices on hopes that Saudi Arabia and Russia would end their price war.

“We doubt that the rally in oil prices of the past couple of days will last, even if Russia and Saudi Arabia agree a deal to cut output - we only expect lower supply to put a floor under prices.” Capital Economics said in a note.

The bump in prices, along with extremely low stock valuations in the sector, saw energy stocks outperforming other sectors for the week with a 9% gain.

Healthcare stocks .SXDP were among the few gainers for the day, as the sector continued to benefit from safe-haven demand. They added 5.8% for the week.

Retail stocks .SXRP also gained after data showed euro zone retail sales jumped by more than expected in February, the month before coronavirus measures spread across the continent, as shoppers stocked up on food and drink and sharply increased their online spending.

Reporting by Sagarika Jaisinghani in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta and Mark Potter

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