Coronavirus: US Navy hospital ship to arrive in New York City on Monday – as it happened


Mnuchin optimistic Senators will approve $2tn economic stimulus

James Politi reports from Washington

Steven Mnuchin, the US treasury secretary, said he expected the $2tn economic stimulus package to pass the Senate later on Wednesday despite last minute opposition from a group of Republican lawmakers to a provision expanding unemployment benefits.

“Our expectation is this bill passes tonight and gets to the House tomorrow and it passes. We need to get this money into the American economy and American workers,” Mr Mnuchin said at a White House briefing.

A group of Republican senators led by Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had earlier cast doubt on the passage of the legislation by objecting to a $600 per week increase in unemployment benefits that was part of the deal, on the grounds that it would provide a disincentive to work.

But Mr Mnuchin, who said he spoke to some of the unhappy lawmakers, said he disagreed with their position, saying it did not create “disincentives” since most Americans wanted to keep their jobs.

He also said that the idea of a $600 increase per week across the country was motivated by the need to get the money to recipients as fast as possible, and a more tailored approach would have taken longer since it would have to be delivered through each state.

Asia: what you might have missed

American Airlines has drawn down the $1bn loan it took out a week ago. Like other airlines, has sought liquidity as demand for air travel evaporated amid the pandemic and the travel restrictions attempting to curb it. Delta Air Lines has drawn $3bn in loans, and Southwest Airlines has tapped $2bn.

Finland is cutting off the region around its capital city Helsinki from the rest of the Nordic country in an attempt to slow the pace of the coronavirus outbreak. Sanna Marin, Finland’s centre-left prime minister, announced on Thursday evening that travel into and out from the Uusimaa region that includes Helsinki would be prohibited until April 19, with only a few exceptions.

The UK High Court has dismissed a legal challenge which had sought the temporary release of detainees in immigration removal centres if they were at risk from coronavirus. Two judges dismissed a judicial review challenge brought by Detention Action, a charity, against the Home Office on Wednesday evening.

Diplomats are turning to the department of defence to get thousands of US citizens home as international travel shuts down in a bid to stem the spread of coronavirus. The US state department said it plans to fly 9,000 people home in 66 flights in coming days, but assessed that 50,000 might seek to return to the US. It has already brought 9,000 people back from 28 countries.

European Central Bank head Mario Draghi said the coronavirus pandemic is a human tragedy of potentially biblical proportions. “Many today are living in fear of their lives or mourning their loved ones,” he told the FT. “The actions being taken by governments to prevent our health systems from being overwhelmed are brave and necessary. They must be supported.”

Walmart is granting rent relief to about 10,000 businesses that operate on its premises in the US as concerns grow over how smaller enterprises can cope with the coronavirus shutdown. The world’s biggest retailer said it was offering to waive April payments for the hairdressers, restaurant franchises, community banks and other outlets that lease space in its stores.

Four of the five largest US banks have committed to a 90-day mortgage freeze for anyone in California affected by Covid-19, state governor Gavin Newsom announced. The participating banks are Citigroup, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and US Bank. The outlier is Bank of America, which agreed to only a 30-day “forbearance”.

Nearly 100,000 French companies will receive €4bn of government support for 1.2m employees temporarily laid off as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdown, the labour ministry said.

UK property demand plunges as virus takes hold

James Pickford in London

The level of demand from UK property buyers dropped by two-fifths last week, according to research that predicts a decline of 60 per cent in the number of sales over the next three months in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Research from property website Zoopla suggested a decline in transactions would deepen over the next six months, as tough restrictions on physical movement and non-essential social contact hit the housing market. However, it said the effect on house prices would be harder to predict until the economic impact and the effectiveness of government countermeasures became clearer.

Covid-19’s impact on the UK property market is “unprecedented”, Zoopla said. “The social distancing strategy has created an immediate impediment to property viewings and valuations, which are integral to the process of buying and selling a home,” it said.

To measure demand, Zoopla analyses the numbers of people browsing properties online who show proactive interest in a home by, for instance, contacting an estate agent about it. In its latest Cities Index, Zoopla said demand had fallen by 40 per cent in the seven days to Sunday March 22, compared with the previous week.

Asia-Pacific stocks mixed after Wall Street gains

Asia-Pacific stocks were mixed following the first back-to-back gain on Wall Street in over a month as US legislators worked to agree a $2tn emergency stimulus package.

In early trading on Thursday, the S&P/ASX 200 was up 1.2 per cent in Australia. Japan’s Topix was down 1.4 per cent and South Korea’s Kospi was down 0.8 per cent.

Those moves came after US stocks recorded their first back-to-back gains in more than a month as US legislators worked to finalise a $2tn emergency stimulus bill to provide relief to taxpayers and businesses battling the effects of coronavirus.

The US benchmark S&P 500 ended the day 1.2 per cent higher, while London’s FTSE 100 closed up 4.4 per cent.

S&P 500 futures were flat.

UK confirmed coronavirus cases rise to 9,529

The number of people in the UK who have tested positive for coronavirus rose to 9,529 as of 9am GMT on March 25, according to government figures. More than 97,000 people have now been tested for the virus.

The Department of Health and Social Care said 463 patients who had tested positive for coronavirus have died.

Boris Johnson is facing pressure to speed up the rollout of coronavirus tests amid concerns that a lack of diagnostics is impeding efforts to contain the virus. The government is aiming to increase the testing to 25,000 a day by the end of April, from about 6,000 a day currently.

Mexico conducts debt swap as coronavirus cases expected to rise

Jude Webber in Mexico City

Mexico’s finance ministry conducted a debt swap to help meet demand for longer-dated government paper, extend maturities and boost market liquidity amid the coronavirus crisis.

It said in a statement it had swapped 53.448bn pesos ($2.2bn) of M bonds due on June 11, 2020 for Treasury certificates known as Cetes, with the Bank of Mexico acting as financial agent. Banxico also swapped 5bn pesos of the bond with the same maturity.

The operation did not incur additional debt, an article of faith for populist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Mexico has just entered the community transmission phase of Covid-19, and has 405 confirmed cases currently, but health authorities are warning that figure will rise and may not peak until August.

Mr López Obrador has committed to helping the poor and elderly weather the looming economic storm. He signed a decree on Tuesday enabling people over 65, those with chronic illness and pregnant or lactating mothers to stay away from their jobs, but still be paid. Mr López Obrador is himself 66 and many members of his government are a similar age.

The president has also promised 1m interest-free or low interest loans for small business owners and a subsidies plan for 20,000 corn farmers. He has also advanced pensions to the elderly and the finance ministry has disbursed extra funds to the military, which is helping set up medical facilities.

He has argued against a full-scale lockdown of Mexico — where half the country works in the informal sector, with no benefits and often living day to day.

Australia’s largest retail tenant suspends rent payments

Jamie Smyth in Sydney

Premier Investments, an Australia retailer with stores in the UK, Ireland and New Zealand, is standing down 9,000 employees worldwide and suspended rent payments to landlords in response to the coronavirus crisis.

The move by the retailer, which is Australia’s largest retail tenant and known for brands such as Smiggle and Portmans, follows tens of thousands of job losses in the retail, hospitality and travel sectors this week as tough rules on social distancing encourage people not to leave their homes.

Premier is one of the first companies in Australia to indicate that it will not pay rent to landlords — a move that will put pressure on state governments, which are mulling rental relief schemes that could impact tenants and landlords in the residential and commercial sectors.

“These extraordinary circumstances mean Premier intends not to pay any rent globally for the duration of the shutdown,” said Mark McInnes, Premier chief executive.

He said the group had maximum flexibility in Australia and New Zealand where 70 per cent of its stores were already in holdover because their leases had expired, or their leases were set to expire in 2020.

Premier said the temporary shutdown would last from later today until at least April 22.

China reports 67 imported coronavirus cases

Health authorities in China reported 67 new coronavirus cases to the end of Wednesday, all of which were found in people returning from overseas.

That takes the total number of reported imported cases to 541, with infections discovered in returnees in 13 cities and provinces.

There were no new cases in Hubei, the origin of the outbreak.

Mainland China has now reported 81,285 cases, 74,051 of which have been discharged from hospital. The death toll from the virus rose by six to 3,287.

Alaska Airlines cuts 70% of flights for April and May

Claire Bushey in Chicago

Alaska Airlines is cutting capacity further this spring, slashing 70 per cent of flights in April and May.

The sixth-largest airline in North America said June flights “will be based on demand, but it is our expectation that reductions will be substantial for at least the next several months”.

The airline had previously said it would cut capacity by 10 per cent in April and 15 per cent in May.

Airlines worldwide are struggling as governments ban travel and passengers cancel bookings in the face of coronavirus.

The company is cutting hours for management employees and dismissing contractors and temporary workers. It is suspending its dividend, which paid $44m last quarter.

It has drawn down a $400m line of credit and secured a $425m secured loan on Wednesday.

US lawmakers have agreed on a $2tn stimulus bill that would include $50bn for passenger airlines, half in the form of grants. JPMorgan Chase analysts Jamie Baker and Mark Streeter estimate Alaska’s share of the grants at $1.6bn.

Chief executive Brad Tilden, who will take no pay until September 30, said “that given the lack of demand for air travel … hard work and aggressive control of costs and cash are required, even with additional support”.

South Korea pledges ‘unlimited’ liquidity to support businesses

South Korea announced a series of new measures to boost companies and stabilise markets in the latest bid to shore up an economy battered by the global coronavirus pandemic, Edward White and Song Jung-a report.

The Bank of Korea, the country’s central bank, pledged an “unlimited amount of liquidity” to domestic financial companies for the next three months to support financial market stability.

Seoul will lower the foreign exchange liquidity coverage ratio for banks from 80 per cent to 70 per cent until the end of May, to provide the market with greater access to dollars, and exempt a levy on local financial companies to ease their tax burden in obtaining foreign currency for the next three months.

“We will make sure that enough financial support will be provided to small merchants, self-employed people and small and mid-sized companies that are most vulnerable to economic shocks,” said vice finance minister Kim Yong-beom.

Thursday’s moves add to record stimulus and unprecedented market support measures already announced by the government in Seoul.

South Korea’s new coronavirus cases ticked higher again on Thursday. The Korea Centers for Disease Control reported 104 new cases, up from 100 on Wednesday, and taking the total infection caseload to 9,241.

Amazon faces pressure to protect employees from coronavirus

Dave Lee in San Francisco

Amazon is facing increasing political pressure to take more drastic action to protect its employees from the spread of coronavirus.

Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders on Wednesday called on the company to “immediately close down workplaces that have employees who test positive for coronavirus” and to allow all workers at affected sites to self-isolate for two weeks on full pay.

Employees at as many as 12 separate Amazon facilities in the US are understood to have been diagnosed with Covid-19.

Just one location, a warehouse in Shephardsville, Kentucky, near Louisville, is closed for an extended “deep clean”. At the other locations, spread out across 11 states, only workers who have been in “close” contact with the affected employee have been told to stay home on full pay.

Amazon has said it is taking “extreme” measures to keep its facilities clean and operational, implementing social distancing to limit crowding, including loosening security checks to speed up entering and exiting the buildings.

Chief executive Jeff Bezos acknowledged a shortage of medical supplies for staff, such as masks.

Also on Wednesday, attorneys general from 14 states, plus the District of Columbia, wrote a joint letter demanding Amazon improve its sick pay scheme for its workers, including those at its Whole Foods grocery chain.

“Grocery stores such as Whole Foods remain one of the few places where people are regularly congregating in close quarters, and thus it is especially important to ensure that they do everything they can to minimise the risk of infection,” the letter read.

First coronavirus case reported at the Pentagon

Katrina Manson in Washington

The Pentagon on Wednesday reported the first coronavirus-positive case in is building, one of the largest in the world, amid warnings the outbreak would last for months and numbers would continue to grow.

The US Marine, who is stationed at the Department of Defense headquarters that is home to tens of thousands of staff, tested positive on Tuesday after putting himself into isolation more than a week before when an immediate family member showed symptoms.

The department said 415 military personnel and their dependents have tested positive for the illness to date. One contractor has died.

Defence secretary Mark Esper had been at pains to keep the five-sided office building free of the disease. Coffee machines, computer keyboards and doorknobs have been wiped down and people have kept six feet from each other in cases where it was not possible to switch to remote working.

But the Pentagon is now also increasing travel restrictions, freezing all troop movements for 60 days in a move that will halt exercises, deployments and affect 90,000 people.

It said US troops were still due to start drawing down from Afghanistan within 135 days.

A top Pentagon doctor, Brigadier General Paul Friedrichs, said on Wednesday cases would “continue to grow”. The virus is increasingly affecting overseas personnel and Mr Esper said this week the outbreak could last “months”.

Three sailors were evacuated after testing positive for Covid-19 on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier, which docked in Vietnam earlier this month and is now quarantining others while at sea in the Pacific.

Mexicans told to ‘drastically’ reduce movement to curb coronavirus

Jude Webber in Mexico City

Mexico reported 475 cases or coronavirus on Wednesday, a rise of 70 from the previous day, and six deaths as Hugo López-Gatell, the health undersecretary, urged people to “drastically” reduce their movements to curb the spread of the virus.

“The vast majority of people must stay at home,” he told the government’s daily Covid-19 news conference. The federal government will halt all but essential activities such as health, energy, security and cleaning, from Thursday.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s daily 7am press conference will still go ahead, but chairs have been separated to maintain a safe distance, government spokesman Jesús Ramírez said.

The president, who as recently as Sunday was urging Mexicans to go about their lives normally and to go out to restaurants to keep the economy afloat, usually travels around Mexico at the weekend.

Mr Ramírez said that for now the president’s agenda “is still on” but details would be confirmed on Thursday.

Panic buying returns to Japan as cases spike

Leo Lewis and Kana Inagaki in Tokyo

Panic buying has left many of Tokyo’s store shelves empty after a record rise in new coronavirus cases prompted the city’s governor to ask residents to stay at home this weekend.

Yuriko Koike, whose overnight announcement came less than 24 hours after Tokyo and the International Olympic Committee agreed to postpone the summer Games, warned that the world’s biggest city could be on course for an “explosive spike” in new cases.

On Wednesday, there were 41 new infections in Tokyo, a record one-day rise after 17 cases were reported on Tuesday and 16 on Monday. There are 212 cases in total in Tokyo.

Ms Koike, citing medical experts, requested that residents work from home and to refrain from dining out in the evenings. She also called on universities to delay the start of classes from early April, the start of the new school year for Japan.

Singapore GDP plunges by most in a decade

Stefania Palma in Singapore

Singapore’s GDP growth tumbled by an annualised 10.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2020 from the previous quarter, according to advance estimates from the government, marking the sharpest drop in a decade.

The construction and services sectors contracted quarter on quarter due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak, while the manufacturing sector expanded by 4.2 per cent.

“As the global Covid-19 situation is still evolving rapidly, there remains a significant degree of uncertainty over the severity and duration of the global outbreak, and the trajectory of the global economic recovery once the outbreak has been contained,” said Singapore’s ministry of trade and industry. “The balance of risks, however, is tilted to the downside”.

The city state also downgraded its 2020 GDP growth forecast for a second time this year to between minus 4 and minus 1 per cent in light of the virus spreading rapidly worldwide and Singapore tightening border controls and safe distancing measures.

Singapore had originally slashed its growth estimate in February to between minus 0.5 per cent and 1.5 per cent.

Japan stocks fall as Tokyo coronavirus cases jump

Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong and Leo Lewis in Tokyo

The rally in global stocks lost momentum in Asia as 11th-hour objections threatened to stall a $2tn coronavirus economic relief package in the US.

Investors were also on edge over the rising number of Covid-19 cases, as Tokyo moved closer to a full lockdown in an attempt to slow the rate of infections.

In early morning trading on Thursday, Japan’s benchmark Topix index fell 2.7 per cent after the country’s capital reported a record jump in the number of new virus infections. That prompted the governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, to call on inhabitants to stay home over the coming weekend.

Elsewhere, China’s CSI 300 of Shanghai- and Shenzhen-listed shares fell 0.6 per cent, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng dropped 1 per cent.

The losses came a day after Wall Street recorded its first back-to-back daily gains in more than a month as US legislators worked to finalise an emergency stimulus bill that would provide relief to taxpayers and businesses hit by coronavirus.

But on Wednesday evening, Republican senators raised objections to new unemployment benefits in the legislation.

Futures markets pointed to a fall of 1 per cent for the S&P 500 later on Thursday.

US Senate passes $2tn fiscal stimulus in bipartisan vote

James Politi in Washington

The US Senate has approved fiscal stimulus legislation worth $2tn to help sustain the American economy during the coronavirus pandemic, in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote after a week of intense negotiations between the Trump administration and Congress.

The upper chamber passed the bill unanimously, of those who had voted, overcoming an 11th-hour protest by a group of Republican senators who opposed the expansion of unemployment benefits for workers fired from their jobs – one of the central provisions of the package.

The stimulus package will now move to the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats, for its final legislative green light, likely on Friday, before it can be signed and enacted by US president Donald Trump.

The large fiscal boost to the US economy contained in the bill has cheered investors in recent sessions, triggering a rally in equities that gave markets some room to breathe after a series of bruising losses.

As well as the expansion of jobless benefits, the bill also provides for direct transfers of money to millions of Americans, $500bn in funds to help stricken sectors of the economy, more than $350bn in loans to small businesses, and aid to hospitals.

“We’ve shut down major parts of the economy. And [Mr Trump] wants to make sure not only do we protect [American workers and business] but the economy is ready when he’s ready to open the country,” Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary who was the lead negotiator for the Trump administration, told Fox News on Wednesday.

The vote in the Senate came as Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker showed that US cases of the disease had soared past 68,000, with more than 1,000 deaths resulting from the pandemic.

Despite the huge price tag, many on Capitol Hill are expecting that a new round of stimulus may well have to be negotiated in the next few weeks or months.

Yemen combatants agree to ceasefire as coronavirus threat looms

Simeon Kerr in Dubai

The warring parties in Yemen have agreed to a ceasefire in a bid to protect the conflict-ravaged country from the threat of coronavirus.

On the fifth anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in the impoverished nation’s civil war, the rebel Houthi movement and the ousted government agreed late on Wednesday to a call from the UN secretary general, António Guterres, for an immediate cessation of hostilities.

Saudi Arabia has endorsed the Yemeni government’s backing of an end to the fighting that has killed tens of thousands of people in a country already identified by the UN as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

The Saudi-led coalition called for de-escalation and practical humanitarian and economic steps to alleviate the suffering of Yemeni people and prevent an outbreak, a spokesman said. The Houthis welcomed the Saudi statement, saying they were waiting to see it applied practically.

The coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015, seeking to restore the government ousted by the rebels allied to Riyadh’s regional rival Iran with an extensive air and ground campaign.But the war descended into a bloody stalemate, with Saudi Arabia and forces loyal to the ousted government unable to make gains beyond southern Yemen into the mountainous northern Houthi heartlands.

Five years of fighting have left the country devastated and pushed it to the brink of famine, with a resurgence of fighting along frontlines in Al Jawf and Marib undermining recent UN attempts to secure a political settlement.

Concerns have grown that the country’s battered infrastructure and weak healthcare system, already struggling with cholera and malnutrition, is ill equipped to deal with any viral outbreak.

The World Health Organization earlier this week sent testing kits and protective gear for medical staff workers to the government’s base in the southern port of Aden and the Houthi-held capital of Sanaa, where workers have been disinfecting the streets fearing an outbreak.

No cases have been reported yet.

Asia’s largest fresh produce market hit by Indian lockdown

Jyotsna Singh in New Delhi

Asia’s largest fresh produce wholesale market, the Azadpur Subzi Mandi, on the outskirts of Delhi, has been severely disrupted by India’s abrupt 21-day lockdown, raising concerns about the government’s ability to maintain critical food supply chains into cities.

Rajendra Sharma, former chairman of the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee Azadpur, said that on the first day of the nationwide curfew, both incoming supply trucks, and those seeking to enter the market to collect fresh produce, were stopped by police from reaching the vast market.

“The government made the announcement without doing its homework,” he said. “We are facing massive disruption. Purchasers are not being allowed into the city, supply trucks are stuck at the borders.”

On Thursday, some trucks had reached the market, and a small number of buyers had been able to enter the market. But Mr Sharma warned that if the flow did not improve further, retail prices of vegetables would rise.

The Indian government has promised to maintain the flow of essential commodities, and permitted shops to remain open. But shop shelves are increasingly bare, after days of panic buying, and due to limits on the movements of trucks carrying fresh supplies.

Thailand forecasts $9.2bn hit to tourism as arrivals drop

John Reed in Bangkok

Thailand’s tourism authority said it expected visitor arrivals to drop this year by a quarter, or 6m people, and result in lost revenues of Bt300bn ($9.2bn) under an optimistic scenario in which visits returned to normal in the second half.

“We are projecting (and hoping for) a return to normalcy in the second half of 2020,” Tanes Petsuwan, Tourism Authority of Thailand’s deputy governor, told the FT in emailed answers to questions. “If that happens, we forecast this year’s arrivals will touch 30 million, down 24 per cent over 2019.”

However, Mr Tanes said TAT was working with “a number of scenarios ranging from best to worst case”.

The official’s remarks came as Prayuth Chan-ocha, the Thai prime minister, from Thursday introduced a temporary emergency rule giving it new powers to fight the spread of Covid-19, and officials warned the kingdom might impose a national lockdown without warning to avoid panic buying.

Tourism contributes more than 10 per cent of GDP in south-east Asia’s second-largest economy, but arrivals have collapsed because of the pandemic. Thai Airways, the loss-making state-owned carrier, this week cancelled all its international routes except for Munich and Zurich, destinations regularly used by King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Russia bans all international flights to stem outbreak

Henry Foy in Moscow

Russia has banned all international flights in and out of the country in a sharp escalation of its policies to stem the rise of coronavirus cases in the country.

The move underlines a growing anxiety in Moscow that the government’s attempts to suppress the outbreak have not been sufficient and the crisis may be worse than previously admitted.

The country’s air regulator will cancel all scheduled and charter flights to foreign countries from 00:00 on Friday, except special flights to repatriate Russian citizens, the government said in a statement posted on its website.

Russia has already scaled back flight timetables to just major capital cities, but the move essentially seals off the country’s borders.

The escalation comes a day after president Vladimir Putin used a national address to admit the outbreak was serious enough for him to delay a national vote on constitutional changes designed to extend his rule by 12 years, and data showing cases of Covid-19 in the country are rising rapidly.

Europe: what you might have missed

The US Senate has approved fiscal stimulus legislation worth $2tn to help sustain the American economy during the coronavirus pandemic.

Elsewhere in the country, the Pentagon on Wednesday reported the first coronavirus-positive case in its building.

South Korea announced a series of new measures to boost companies and stabilise markets in the latest bid to shore up its economy.

Disruptions to Asia’s largest fresh produce wholesale market, the Azadpur Subzi Mandi, on the outskirts of Delhi, have raised questions over the Indian government’s ability to maintain food supply chains into cities during a 21-day lockdown.

Health authorities in China reported 67 new coronavirus cases to the end of Wednesday, all of which were found in people returning from overseas.

Premier Investments, Australia’s largest retail tenant with stores in the UK, Ireland and New Zealand, is standing down 9,000 employees worldwide and suspending rent payments to landlords in response to the coronavirus crisis.


French economy running 35 per cent below normal

Victor Mallet reports from Paris:

French economic activity is running at 35 per cent below normal because of the measures to contain the country’s coronavirus outbreak, according to preliminary estimates from the statistics institute Insee.

The numbers suggest annual French GDP will shrink by 3 per cent if the national lockdown currently in force lasts for a month, and by 6 per cent if it lasts two months, Insee said on Thursday. The latest predictions from the finance ministry said the economy was expected to shrink 1 per cent this year, but officials accept this is almost certain to be an underestimate.

“Right now, we estimate that activity is at 65 per cent of normal,” said Jean-Luc Tavernier, Insee director-general, stressing that calculations were tentative, based on incomplete data, and subject to revision.

The worst hit sector of the economy is construction, which accounts for 6 per cent of GDP and is estimated to be running at 89 per cent below normal. Non-food industry is down 52 per cent, commercial services 36 per cent, non-commercial services 14 per cent and the food and farming sector is down just 4 per cent.

United Arab Emirates to sterilise all public transport

Simeon Kerr reports from Dubai

The United Arab Emirates will conduct a nationwide sterilisation programme for utilities and public transport from Thursday evening until Sunday morning.

The authorities will suspend transportation services, including Dubai Metro, and restrict other traffic during this time.

Social distancing has already been enforced on the metro, causing long queues as security limits the number of commuters on each train.

The health and interior ministries called on the public to remain at home over the weekend, only leaving to collect food or attend jobs in vital sectors, the state news agency reported on Thursday.

As the number of coronavirus cases rose to 333, the UAE also on Wednesday referred 64 people carrying the disease for prosecution for breaking their mandated 14 days’ home quarantine and exposing others to the virus.

Market rally fizzles out

Philip Georgiadis in London and Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong report:

European stocks were set to record opening losses, as a sharp rally in global stocks lost steam on Thursday.

Futures trade pointed to losses of around 2.5 per cent for the FTSE 100, while other major bourses across the region were primed for similar falls at the opening bell.

Wall Street was set to snap a two-day rally, while Asian stocks fell.

Markets had shot higher this week following nearly a month of sustained losses, as investors have broadly welcomed significant global monetary and fiscal stimulus programmes.

But with large stretches of the western world under lockdown and economic activity grinding to a halt, analysts said that stimulus measures could only do so much to support the rebound in global markets and evidence of a slowdown in the pace of new infections was now needed.

James McCann, senior global economist at Aberdeen Standard investments, warned that Washington could find itself “back at square one” if the economic hit to the US from the coronavirus outweighs the support offered by a $2tn relief package.

UK companies continue to reel from virus fallout

A host of names were added this morning to the ever growing list of companies withdrawing their guidance and cutting their dividends in the face of the coronavirus fallout.

• Mobile and electronics group Dixons Carphone, which this week was forced to shut all its stores in the UK and Ireland, said the closures would hit sales by around £400m. It pulled its full-year guidance and said it would consider whether to pay a dividend.

Intu, the heavily indebted shopping centre owner, said as of yesterday it had received only 29 per cent of rent due for the second quarter, compared to 77 per cent last year. It also pulled its full-year guidance.

• Engineering group Weir said it was culling its North American oil and gas workforce by a quarter as it too pulled its full year guidance.

• Property group British Land said underlying earnings for its financial year ending this month would be “broadly in line” with expectations, but suspended dividend payments.

• Aerospace and defence group Senior also suspended its dividend and withdrew its guidance for the year.

• Adrian Marsh, who was set to join bookmaker William Hill as chief financial officer, has decided instead to stay put at packaging group DS Smith due to the virus upheaval. Ruth Prior, the bookies’ current finance chief will remain in situ while they search for someone else.

Intu receives less than a third of rent after retailers refuse to pay

George Hammond reports from London

Intu, the embattled retail landlord, has received less than a third of the rent it is owed by tenants, as retailers that have been forced to close refuse to pay up.

The company, which owns the Trafford Centre in Manchester and is one of the UK’s largest shopping centre owners, said it was paid just 29 per cent of the rent it was due for the second quarter of the year on Wednesday’s payment deadline. That compares with 77 per cent for the same period last year.

All of Intu’s shopping centres are operating at skeleton capacity, with essential shops such as supermarkets remaining open, but most retail shut. A number of big retailers, including Primark and Debenhams, had indicated they would not pay due rent on rent day.

The landlord has £184m in cash and facilities on hand, it said, and is cutting back on spending “for the foreseeable future”.

British Land, another large retail landlord, announced it was suspending future dividend payments to preserve cash on Thursday.

UK regulators unveil measures to ease company reporting

Matthew Vincent in London reports:

Britain’s three main financial regulators have told companies and auditors to adopt new approaches to providing information for investors amid the coronavirus disruption — including taking extra time to publish accounts, reassessing potential losses, and overcoming difficulties in collecting audit evidence.

Under new guidance from the Financial Conduct Authority, all London-listed companies will be allowed an extra two months to publish their audited annual financial reports. They will now be be given six months from the end of their financial year, rather than the usual four, to issue the information to shareholders.
But the regulator warned investors not to assume that a company delaying publication was in difficulty.

At the same time, The Financial Reporting Council has said that the content of companies’ financial reports and the work of auditors must change. These changes will include modified audit opinions where auditors have been unable to gather all the necessary evidence to complete the audit in full, and more disclosures of “material uncertainties” casting doubt on a company’s ability to continue as a going concern.

Auditors will still be expected to obtain “sufficient, appropriate audit evidence to support their audit opinion”. However, where Covid-19 social distancing measures prevent this, they may do so using communications technology or working from home.

In addition, the Prudential Regulation Authority has provided new guidance to UK banks and building societies on whether loan payment holidays granted to borrowers affected by coronavirus should be accounted for as a default, or require an expected loss provision.


European market rally sputters with stocks down 2%

A vigorous rally in Europe’s stock markets has run out of fuel with markets opening on Thursday with significant losses.

The continent’s Stoxx 600 slipped almost 2 per cent after the opening bell, having soared 11.8 per cent during the previous two trading days. The index has not posted such a large two-day gain since a tumultuous period during the financial crisis. UK, German and French market barometers all fell more than 2 per cent.

Investor confidence has been lifted by a flood of stimulus programmes that have been launched by central banks and governments around the world. However, analysts remain wary about the extent of the economic damage the Covid-19 outbreak will cause, especially as the situation worsens in major economies such as the US.

Moscow ramps up restrictions as Russian infections jump

Henry Foy in Moscow reports:

Russia’s number of coronavirus cases jumped by another record amount on Thursday to reach 840 people infected, as the mayor of Moscow ordered a shutdown of public spaces and non-essential businesses next week.

Russia has recorded lower numbers of cases than other European countries but has seen a sharp spike in recent days, prompting the Kremlin to switch from saying the situation was “under control” to ramping up measures to contain the spread of the outbreak.

The number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 rose by 182, or 28 per cent, authorities said on Thursday.

At the same time, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin said the capital’s restaurants, bars, cafes, major parks and all services “requiring the presence of a person” such as hairdressers and beauty salons would be closed from March 28 to April 5. Food shops and pharmacies would remain open.

The measures come hours after Moscow announced it would suspend all international flights to and from the country from 00:00 on Friday.

Singapore bolsters stimulus package with additional $34bn

Stefania Palma in Singapore reports

Singapore will unleash the largest stimulus package in its history to counter the fallout from the coronavirus outbreak.

The city state on Thursday announced an additional S$48.6bn ($33.6bn) scheme, which together with measures introduced in February, takes the overall plan to S$55bn, or 11 per cent of Singapore’s GDP.

“This is a landmark package, and a necessary response to a unique situation,” said Heng Swee Keat, finance minister and deputy prime minister.

We are facing an unprecedented crisis of a highly complex nature. In economic terms alone, this will likely be the worst economic contraction since independence

The package builds on the first scheme to help protect jobs, support businesses and strengthen the local economy.

The island nation will finance the scheme with current and past reserves. Halimah Yacob, Singapore’s president, has given in-principle support to draw up to S$17bn from past reserves to help fund the relief plan. This move, subject to parliamentary approval, would mark just the second time Singapore has drawn on this pool of cash, after drawing down S$4.9bn to help finance a S$20.5bn stimulus package during the global financial crisis in 2009.

India outlines $22bn relief package

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi reports:

India has announced a $22bn relief package to aid impoverished Indians facing severe hardships due to the shutdown of most economic activities by a nationwide curfew.

Nirmala Sitharaman, the finance minister, said the Indian government will provide 5kg of free wheat or rice per person and 1kg of pulses every month per household for the next three months. The food will be made available through the public distribution system that India already uses to provide subsidised grains to the poor.

The government has also announced a series of direct cash transfers, including Rs1,000 one-time payment to 30m senior citizens, widows and disabled people. It will also provide payments of Rs500 per month, for each of the next three months, to 200m women who hold no-frills bank accounts set up under a government scheme.

New Delhi has also instructed states to tap into a $4.1bn construction workers welfare fund to provide additional relief to about 35m registered construction workers, most of whom have been sent home as work has been brought to a halt.

The government has said it would also provide health insurance cover of $66,000 for all front-line healthcare and hospital workers for the next three months.

Airbus halts UK wing production and cuts German hours

Peggy Hollinger in London reports:

Airbus is suspending wing production in the UK and cutting working hours in Germany for three weeks as it reviews output across the board in light of the spreading coronavirus.

The European aircraft maker this week reopened its factories in France and Spain after a near week-long shutdown to implement health and safety measures. However, the factories have come back online at significantly reduced production rates, raising questions over more permanent production cuts as airlines move to defer or even cancel deliveries after being forced to ground their fleets.

The UK sites at Broughton in Wales and Filton in the southeast of England would take an extended Easter holiday for three weeks while Bremen in Germany would work on reduced hours. Airbus would continue to evaluate its production flow, based on the constraints of the new ways of working, it said.

Few analysts expect production to return to levels before the coronavirus outbreak, which is forcing a widespread revision of longer term expectations for cash and profit by Airbus and its US rival Boeing. The US group has called on Washington for state aid to survive the crisis.

ABN Amro hit by $200m loss on a single client

Nicholas Megaw and Philip Stafford report:

Dutch bank ABN Amro has announced a $200m hit to its profits after recent market volatility led to the failure of a client in its business catering to proprietary trading firms.

ABN Amro Clearing was forced to close out the positions of its client at a significant loss after the firm was unable to meet margin calls on its trades in US options and futures. The resulting net loss of $200m (€183m) on the client is equivalent to 9 per cent of the group’s full-year profit.

Shares in ABN fell 5 per cent at the start of trading on Thursday, compared with a 2 per cent drop in the broader Stoxx 600 index.

ABN — which is majority controlled by the Dutch state after being bailed out during the last financial crisis — had already been under pressure since the start of the coronavirus pandemic because of its heavy exposure to the energy sector.

Its clearing bank earns much of its business sitting between exchanges and clearing houses, processing more than 20m securities and derivatives trades a day on behalf of customers such as high-frequency traders and market makers. Many of them are based in the Netherlands and Chicago.

Trading groups have been urging regulators to loosen rules around options trading, warning that current standards were adding to market volatility.

Germany’s Bosch says it has developed quick Covid-19 test

Joe Miller reports:

Bosch says it has developed a test for Covid-19 that can deliver a diagnosis in under 2.5 hours, and does not need to be taken to a lab.

The German manufacturer said the test, developed in just six weeks, can also check for nine other respiratory diseases, including the flu, using a single sample.

“It will speed up the identification and isolation of infected patients,” said chief executive Volkmar Denner of the device, which was developed in collaboration with the Northern Irish medical technology company Randox Laboratories.

The test will be available in Germany in April, and in Europe soon after, the company added.

Coronavirus tracked: the latest figures as the pandemic spreads

Steve Bernard reports:

Global cases of the Covid-19 virus rose by 48,461 yesterday to stand at 472,686. This is the highest daily rise since the outbreak began. The death toll also rose by 2,390 to 21,308.

The number of new recoveries rose by 5,349, bringing the total number of people free from the virus to 114,228.

The US added 13,355 cases as the virus continued to spread, there are now 68,489 reported cases of Covid-19 in the country. Spain added 7,457 cases – an increase of 21 per cent on the previous day.

The UK, which reported figures much later than usual yesterday, saw its cases rise by more than 1,000 for the second day, adding 1,452.

Russia’s Gazprom quarantines workers at vast Siberian gas field

Henry Foy reports from Moscow:

Russian gas producer Gazprom has quarantined 20 employees at a key gas field that provides supplies to Europe, after workers showed symptoms of coronavirus following contact with an infected person.

Gazprom said production at the massive Bovanenkovo field, which supplies the Nord Stream pipeline that accounts for about one-sixth of the EU’s total gas imports, was continuing as normal.

The quarantined shift workers at the remote gas field in northern Siberia, one of the largest in the world, were isolated after coming into contact with a person carrying the virus on a flight from Moscow 10 days ago, Gazprom Dobycha Nadym, a subsidiary of Gazprom, said in a statement on Thursday.

German cases rise to 36,500

Tobias Buck in Berlin reports:

Germany recorded 4,954 new Coronavirus cases over the past 24 hours, taking the total number of proven infections to 36,508 – the third-highest in Europe behind Italy and Spain.

The number of patients who have died from the disease rose to 198, according to official data from the Robert Koch Institute released on Thursday morning. That compared with 149 dead the day before.

Germany’s case fatality rate has been notably lower than that in other countries, though there are signs that deaths are accelerating. The latest increase in recorded deaths was the highest since the start of the crisis.

More than one in four dead were reported in Heinsberg, a district in the federal state of North-Rhine Westphalia that was among the first to see a spike in cases.

Italian bonds rally as ECB removes barriers to asset purchases

Tommy Stubbington in London reports:

Italian bonds have rallied after the European Central Bank said it would ditch some of the self-imposed limits on its €750bn of asset purchases to fight the coronavirus crisis.

In a legal decision on Wednesday evening, the ECB said a previous pledge to buy no more than 33 per cent of any individual country’s bonds would not apply to the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme, which was announced last week in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus triggering a sovereign debt crisis.

Italy’s 10-year yield fell 0.07 percentage points to just below 1.5 per cent, the lowest in nearly two weeks. Short-dated yields fell even further, while bonds issued by Portugal and Greece joined in the rally.

Yields — which move inversely to bond prices — had spiked after the ECB’s latest policy meeting two weeks ago, when a comment from president Christine Lagarde implied the central bank was no longer backstopping the eurozone’s weaker debt markets. Last week’s PEPP announcement brought yields back down, a move extended by Wednesday’s relaxing of the rules governing bond purchases.

“In a nutshell, the decision removes virtually all constraints on asset purchases, in a further boost to the credibility of the ECB’s commitment,” said Frederik Ducrozet, a strategist at Pictet Wealth Management.

Dutch economy heads for recession

Mehreen Khan reports:

The Dutch economy is on course for a recession which at its worst could result in the economy shrinking by 7.7 per cent this year, according to the country’s national economic forecaster.

In the first major attempt to calculate the economic damage caused by the pandemic, the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Anaylsis (CPB) laid out four possible scenarios for the economy – all of which outline a recession this year. In the most extreme scenario, the recession will wipe out 7.7 per cent of GDP and result in a sustained downturn. The most optimistic sees the economy shrink by 1.2 per cent.

“Under three of the four scenarios, the economic downturn will be more severe than in the 2008–2009 crisis,” said the CPB.

Pieter Hasekamp, director of the CPB, said:

The longer the restrictions on physical contact remain in place and thus continue to deepen their impact, the greater the likelihood of problems in the financial system and of a deeper recession also in other countries, which in turn will further delay economic recovery.

The Dutch government has launched a €20bn national stimulus programme to support business and households.

Big Read: The global hunt for a coronavirus drug

FT journalists have done a deep dive into the frantic global search for a Covid-19 treatment, with a vaccine still some 18 months away.

The Big Read digs into the main options scientists are considering, and describes the myriad challenges they face as they attempt to find or create a drug that will help staunch the global pandemic.

The piece is part of the FT’s free to read series, which is composed of key stories that we are making available to keep everyone informed during this extraordinary crisis.

Read the full story and make sure to bookmark the free to read hub at

US searches for ‘unemployment’ jump

US employment data, due out later on Thursday, will provide some of the first concrete evidence of how the pandemic is hitting the American economy.

Analysts expect it will show a sharp rise in jobless claims to 1.6m in the week to March 21.

“The wide range of estimates, from about 1 million to 4 million, show that we lack historical references to really understand the impact of this unique and probably massive crisis hitting the economy,” said Christopher Dembik, head of macro analysis at Saxo Bank.

Analysts at UBS have showed that as of March 21, weekly Google search interest in unemployment as a per cent of all searches in the US had increased by almost eight times v the previous week. It is now 70 per cent above its post-financial crisis peak, they said.

UBS Evidence Lab

The FT’s US economics editor Brendan Greeley reports that the unemployment insurance system has to scale up quickly, as benefits once kept low to discourage laziness will be raised to encourage people to stay home.

ECB shakes off limits on new €750bn bond-buying plan

Martin Arnold in Frankfurt reports:

The European Central Bank has given itself an unprecedented level of flexibility in its plan to buy €750bn in additional bonds to contain the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which analysts say could leave it open to legal challenges.

Almost all constraints that applied to the ECB’s previous asset-purchase programmes have been removed or significantly loosened, according to the legal decision detailing the ECB’s latest plan, which was published on Wednesday night in the official journal of the EU.

The details of the new programme support the declaration by Christine Lagarde, the ECB’s president, who said on Twitter after it was announced last week: “There are no limits to our commitment to the euro.”

Describing the decision as “a bombshell”, Pictet Wealth Management strategist Frederik Ducrozet said: “There is a risk that the ECB faces legal risks and a political backlash down the road.” But he added that it “strengthens the ECB’s quasi-fiscal support to the most vulnerable sovereign states”.

Crucially, a self-imposed limit to buy no more than a third of any country’s eligible bonds will not apply to the extra €750bn of bonds it has committed to buy this year in response to the coronavirus crisis under its Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme.

Writing in the Financial Times yesterday, former ECB president Mario Draghi called on states to “fully mobilise their entire financial systems” — from bond markets to banking systems — without bureaucratic delays to combat the crisis.

Death toll in Iran rises to 2,234 as citizens urged to return home

Monavar Khalaj reports:

The death toll reached 2,234 in Iran on Thursday, from 2,077 the day before, and officials urged millions of Iranians on New Year vacation to return to the cities they live in as soon as possible.

The health minister on Thursday said 29,406 people had tested positive for the virus as the government warned that anyone who did not return home would have their vehicles seized for a month and be fined 5m rials ($110). The government is due to impose further restrictions on its citizens on Friday.

Meanwhile, president Hassan Rouhani said the government plans to seek permission from the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to withdraw $1bn from the country’s sovereign wealth reserve for injections in to the health sector and to fund unemployment benefits. The government is also set to offer loans to businesses provided they do not lay off workers.

Iran has forecast a rise in the number of people to test positive for coronavirus as about 40 per cent of the 80m population have not followed repeated requests to stay home and observe social distancing rules, according to officials.

Norway’s oil fund reports dismal quarter as equities tumble

Richard Milne in Oslo reports:

Norway’s $930bn oil fund has had one of its worst quarters on record on falling equity markets but the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund is preparing to buy up to $50bn in shares.

The oil fund had a return of minus 16.2 per cent this year up until Wednesday, chief executive Yngve Slyngstad told a press conference on Thursday.

The fund’s equity investments returned minus 22.8 per cent while bonds were flat. That led the share of equities of the total assets of the fund to fall from 70.8 per cent at the end of 2019 to 65.3 per cent on Wednesday. The share of bonds rose from 26.5 per cent to 31.5 per cent.

Mr Slyngstad said that would soon unleash an automatic rebalancing rule under which the fund would seek to buy equities to bring their share back up to the 70 per cent set in its mandate.

Russia will not discuss oil crash at G20 meeting

Henry Foy in Moscow

The Kremlin has said that a crash in the oil market will not be discussed at a virtual meeting of G20 leaders this afternoon convened in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The teleconference was first proposed by Saudi Arabia, whose previous pact with Russia to restrict oil production broke down earlier this month, sparking a price war and sending oil prices crashing down to their lowest level in 18 years.

When asked by journalists on Thursday if “the oil issue” would be discussed at the meeting, president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said: “The oil issue, no. However, it is clear that the global economic implications of coronavirus will not be overlooked.”

Russia has so far rebuffed suggestions it could restart talks with Riyadh on a new pact that could cut supply, amid a sharp fall in demand caused by the Covid-19 outbreak.

EU commission chief hits out at lack of co-operation among states

Mehreen Khan in Brussels reports:

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, has taken a swipe at EU governments for initially “looking out for themselves” and imposing equipment bans and border restrictions in the face of the pandemic.

Speaking to MEPs today, Mrs Von Der Leyen criticised the actions of governments who failed to respond to calls for medical supplies from Italy and imposed export bans on equipment to other member states.

When Europe needed all for one, too many favoured an all for me … Too many initially refused to share their umbrella. It was not long before some felt the consequences of their own unco-ordinated action.

The commission earlier this month condemned the actions of Germany which initially restricted the export of medical supplies to other EU countries. Italy also had a call for help and assistance go unheeded until Brussels was forced to step in. Poland’s government came under fire for imposing a strict no-foreigners rule that led to thousands of kilometres of tailbacks on its borders.

France withdraws troops from Iraq amid threat of coronavirus

Chloe Cornish in Beirut, David Keohane in Paris

France is withdrawing more than a hundred troops from Iraq on Thursday as a precaution against the spread of Covid-19.

French military personnel were training Iraqi soldiers as part of the US-led international coalition against the Sunni jihadis Isis. France’s total deployment was 140 troops, according to the French army.

Training activities have been “temporarily suspended” in light of the coronavirus outbreak, the French defense ministry said.The UK has already brought home half of its forces that were stationed in Iraq, on the same anti-Isis mission, over coronavirus concerns.

Some 346 people in Iraq have been diagnosed with Covid-19, the health ministry said yesterday. Iraq’s mortality rate has been relatively high, with 29 people dead after catching the virus.

While France and the UK insist their troop withdrawals are related to the global pandemic, foreign forces were also under pressure from pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia paramilitary groups and lawmakers to leave the oil-rich country.

How dip’s ‘extraordinary speed’ compares with the financial crisis

US stocks have declined as much in one month as they did over the course of the first year of the financial crisis, an S&P Dow Jones study shows.

“Market dynamics have evolved with extraordinary speed, as any sentient observer knows,” wrote Craig Lazarra, global head of index investment strategy at S&P Dow Jones.

Wall Street’s S&P 500 declined 32 per cent between its peak on February 19 to March 20. The benchmark index shed a comparable amount in the 12 months from its then-cyclical peak on October 9 2007, Mr Lazarra found.

By March 12, the S&P 500 had suffered its quickest descent into a bear market on record, taking just 16 sessions to pass the threshold for a drop of 20 per cent or more from its peak. At Monday’s low close, the S&P 500 had fallen 34 per cent from its 2020 high.

More than 600 die in Spain over past 24 hours but rate slows

Daniel Dombey in Madrid

More than 600 people have died over the past 24 hours in Spain from coronavirus, bringing the total to more than 56,000 confirmed cases, but the rate of increase is marginally slower than in previous days.

The ministry of health said on Thursday that 4,089 people had died, a 19 per cent increase on Wednesday’s cumulative toll. Overall there were 56,188 cases, up 18 per cent.

Authorities have expressed hope that this week will mark the peak of the transmission of the virus, although intensive care cases and deaths may peak one to two weeks later.

The Spanish chamber of deputies voted late on Wednesday to extend the 10-day-old lockdown, the main means through which the government is seeking to get the outbreak under control, to April 11.

Ireland heading for recession, says think-tank

Arthur Beesley in Dublin

Ireland will fall into recession this year because of coronavirus and the economy is on course to shrink by more than 7 per cent even if restrictive measures are lifted after three months, a leading Dublin think-tank has warned.

In a report on Thursday, the Economic & Social Research Institute said the Covid-19 pandemic was the “greatest threat” to the Irish economy since the 2008 financial crisis. Dublin tightened restrictions this week, closing “non-essential” retail outlets after shutting bars and schools in moves that have threatened more than 350,000 jobs.

The ESRI said the shock could lead to 18 per cent unemployment by June, up from 4.8 per cent last month and higher than the 16 per cent peak after the last crash. “At this juncture, we assume that these measures stay in place for a 12-week period and the economy recovers afterwards. Under this scenario, the Irish economy would shrink by 7.1 per cent in 2020,” the report said, adding that the assessment may yet prove to be “too benign”. The likelihood of a sharp contraction follows 5.5 per cent gross domestic product growth in 2019.

Consumption, investment and net trade would all fall sharply; households would cut spending, firms would cancel or postpone investment and external demand for Irish goods and services will fall.

Ireland’s public finances were in surplus before the coronavirus outbreak but the ESRI said a 4.3 per cent defecit in the general government balance was now in prospect for 2020.

It also warned of “a significant fall in revenues the exchequer will face due to the contraction in the economy. It also reflects the significant increase in spending the government will implement in order to support workers who have lost their jobs, assist businesses facing declines in revenue and provide additional health expenditure needed to combat the virus,” said the report.

Belgium sees rise in hospitalised coronavirus patients

Jim Brunsden reports:

The number of people hospitalised in Belgium with coronavirus has risen by nearly a quarter in 24 hours, as the government said the country was not yet at the peak of the epidemic.

A total of 220 people infected with Covid-19 have died in Belgium.

The crisis centre said 536 people were hospitalised on Wednesday with Covid-19, taking the total to 2,652. Of those, 605 are in intensive care, an increase of 131 compared with the previous day.

The national security council will meet on Friday to decide whether the lockdown should be prolonged beyond April 5, with expectations the restrictions will be extended given the spread of the virus.

“Our behaviour will determine the length of the [lockdown] measures,” said the crisis centre. “If the measures are not respected in a socially responsible way, then this could last much longer.”

Credit Suisse investment team says equities now ‘attractive’

Credit Suisse has turned positive on developed world stocks, arguing that equities offer attractive value following steep falls over the past month.

The bank’s investment committee has adopted a small overweight position in developed market equities and believes that “the risk of a very bad economic outcome has come down significantly” following confirmation of the US’s $2tn stimulus package to fight the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

In a note to clients, the bank said:

As investors will rarely buy the bottom in volatile markets such as these, the Investment Committee feels that there is merit in being an early mover rather than wait until a market bottom has become apparent for all. On a 6–12 month horizon, we feel convinced that equities offer attractive value.

The S&P 500 index has risen more than 10 per cent off this month’s lows, but has still lost about a quarter of its value since mid-February.

BlackRock on Thursday also said that the “decisive policy action” had set the scene for an “eventual economic recovery”. The asset manager now favoured moving into risk assets amid the sell-off.

Jean Boivin, head of BlackRock Investment Institute, said in a note:

For long-term investors, significant value has been created. We favour rebalancing toward broad asset class benchmark weights to regain an overall neutral stance.

HSBC puts restructuring job losses on hold

David Crow in London reports:

HSBC’s chief executive Noel Quinn has said that the bank will pause “the vast majority” of redundancies related to a major restructuring of the bank because of coronavirus.

Last month, HSBC unveiled what Mr Quinn described as one of the “deepest restructurings” in the bank’s history, which is expected to result in the loss of 35,000 jobs, many of them via redundancy.

However, in a memo to all staff on Thursday, seen by the FT, Mr Quinn wrote:

Because of the extraordinary impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have decided to pause, for the time being, the vast majority of redundancies associated with this programme where notices have not already been issued.

Mr Quinn also announced a hiring freeze.

We will also pause external recruitment, other than for a small number of front-line and business critical roles and those already with written offers… Internal hiring and redeployment within the bank can proceed as normal.

The FT last week reported that coronavirus would force the bank to delay parts of its restructuring.

Sterling rises to one-week high

Eva Szalay reports:

The pound pushed back to just above $1.20 against the dollar for the first time since last Wednesday, but has so far failed to gain a foothold above that level.

Sterling was 0.8 per cent higher on the day against the US dollar in Wednesday morning trading, but did not make much headway against the euro, which traded slightly up at £0.9154.

The pound’s recovery comes ahead of the Bank of England rate decision later today and amid a general pullback in the dollar.

OJ becomes best performing commodity of 2020

Emiko Terazono reports:

Orange juice has become the best-performing commodity this year after US shoppers rushed to fill their pantries with the shelf staple.

“There is plenty of orange juice around, but it’s a bit like toilet paper,” said Neil Murray at IHS Markit’s Agribusiness Intelligence Unit. “There’s no shortage but people have been rushing to buy it,” he added, noting that Brazil, the biggest exporter, had a bumper crop this year and held a large inventory.

Frozen concentrate orange juice futures, which is traded in New York, has jumped almost 25 per cent in the past week. It is up by the same amount since the start of the year, making it the best-performing commodity, according to Saxo Bank.

Jack Scoville at commodity brokers Price Futures Group in Chicago said that there were worries about labour in the factories and transportation. “Traders are wondering if workers are around to man the plants here in Florida and in Brazil. In addition, there are not enough tankers or containers around for shipping the product to buyers,” he said.

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UK warns banks on coronavirus loans

Jim Pickard, chief political correspondent, writes:

The chancellor, governor of the Bank of England and head of the Financial Conduct Authority have written to chief executives of all major banks to emphasise that lenders cannot take a personal guarantee against the borrowers’ home under the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, Downing Street has revealed.

The letter was sent on Wednesday amid claims that some lenders are forcing borrowers to agree personal guarantees on the emergency loans.

A Number 10 spokesman said that the government was covering the interest charges on the loans for the first 12 months: “Banks also need to play their part. They should be ensuring the benefits of the support – from the government and Bank of England – are passed through to businesses and consumers.”

London’s transport user numbers continue to decline

The number of London Underground passengers has fallen by 13 per cent in a day, as government guidelines limiting use of public transport to essential travel only sinks in around the capital, according to new data from Transport For London.

The number of tube users has fallen by 93 per cent compared to normal levels. Bus goers have fallen more slowly to 81 per cent. The total number of travellers is down 86 per cent.

Despite the reduced passenger count, London tube carriages have remained crowded. TFL has been running at reduced service, limiting the number of journeys and prompting a row to break out between the government and London Mayor Sadiq Khan over service levels.

Matt Hancock, health secretary, has claimed there is “no good reason” why schedules have been limited. However, TFL says that a third of their staff are now self-isolating meaning a significantly reduced service is unavoidable.

Andy Lord, Managing Director of the London Underground, said: “We want to continue to run a core Tube service so that NHS staff and other key workers can make essential journeys.

“We have further reduced journeys by construction workers by temporarily stopping all work on TfL and Crossrail construction sites. The majority of people are playing their part and avoiding travel, but more people need to stop travelling immediately to save lives.”

Powell insists Fed will not ‘run out of ammunition’ in virus battle

James Politi in Washington reports:

Jay Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, said the US central bank would not “run out of ammunition” in supplying the American economy with liquidity as it grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, which would help economic activity rebound later in the year from the current plunge.

In an interview with NBC on Thursday, Mr Powell said the only limit to the Fed’s lending capacity was the backstop to cover its losses coming from the Treasury department, which has been comfortable offering those guarantees in emergency actions taken by the US central bank this week.

When it comes to this lending, we’re not going to run out of ammunition.

The Fed chairman said that the US “may well” be in recession already, but that he expected a rebound later in the year once the virus subsides, since there are no fundamental problems with the economy.

“We know that economic activity will decline, probably substantially in the second quarter, but I think many people expect that economic activity will move back up in the second part of the year,” he said.

Mr Powell also cautioned against a premature restart to economic activity, as Donald Trump, the US president, and some administration officials, weighed whether to lift some of the restrictions they imposed for public health reasons in recent weeks.

He spoke after the US Senate passed a $2tn fiscal stimulus bill to support the economy, which Fed officials consider critical to the overall economic response to the crisis. “[The fiscal stimulus] is really where the immediate relief is going to come from. The help from the Fed will be when the economy begins to rebound,” he said.

Ford to reopen North American from April 6

Claire Bushey

Ford plans to reopen a handful of plants in North America at the beginning of next month.

The Detroit automaker, along with General Motors and Fiat Chrysler, closed its plants last week after reaching an agreement with the United Auto Workers. The union had said plants needed to close to protect workers from the spread of coronavirus.

Kumar Galhotra, Ford’s president of North America, said the company will reopen its assembly facility in Hermosillo, Mexico, on April 6.

Eight days later, Ford plans to reopen four assembly plants and some portion of eight other factories that support them, like by stamping parts. Others due to open: five sites in Michigan; two in Kentucky; two in Kansas City, Missouri; and two in Ohio.

The UAW said it is “reviewing with great concern and caution today’s announcement. Our priority is the health and safety of our members, their families and the American public.”

The move to reopen comes a day after credit rating agencies Moody’s and S&P Global downgraded Ford’s $36tn in debt to junk.


Bank of England holds rates as it forecasts ‘sharp fall’ in output

Valentina Romei reports:

The Bank of England on Thursday held its main interest rate at a historic low as it forecast output would “fall sharply” in the first half of the year.

The bank’s Monetary Policy Committee unanimously agreed to leave the bank rate at 0.1 per cent, having cut rates twice in the last month following emergency meetings as the Covid-19 pandemic swept through the UK.

“Given the severity of that disruption, there is a risk of longer term damage to the economy, especially if there are business failures on a large scale or significant increases in unemployment,” the bank said on Thursday.

The BoE also said on Thursday it would continue with the £200bn increase in government bond purchases that were announced by Andrew Bailey, the bank’s new chief, on March 19.

Ford to reopen some North American plants from April 6

Claire Bushey in Chicago reports:

Ford plans to reopen a handful of plants in North America at the beginning of next month.

The Detroit automaker, along with General Motors and Fiat Chrysler, closed its plants last week after reaching an agreement with the United Auto Workers. The union had said plants needed to close to protect workers from the spread of coronavirus.

Kumar Galhotra, Ford’s president of North America, said the company would reopen its assembly facility in Hermosillo, Mexico, on April 6.

Eight days later, Ford plans to reopen four assembly plants and some parts of eight other factories that support them. Others plants due to open: five sites in Michigan; two in Kentucky; two in Kansas City, Missouri; and two in Ohio.

The UAW said it was “reviewing with great concern and caution today’s announcement. Our priority is the health and safety of our members, their families and the American public”.

The move to reopen comes a day after credit-rating agencies Moody’s and S&P Global downgraded Ford’s $36bn* debt to junk.

*This post has been amended to correct the scale of the automakers’ debt.

Number of Londoners using public transport dwindles

London Underground and bus passenger numbers have dwindled as Londoners heed government guidelines on limiting use of public transport to essential travel.

The number of Tube users, down 13 per cent in a day, has fallen 93 per cent compared with normal levels, Transport for London figures show. Bus goers are down 81 per cent compared with this time last year. The total number of travellers is down 86 per cent.

London Tube carriages even so appear crowded. TfL has been running a reduced service, prompting a spat between the government and London Mayor Sadiq Khan over service levels.

Matt Hancock, health secretary, has said there is “no good reason” why schedules have been limited. However, TfL said that a third of their staff were self-isolating so a significantly reduced service was unavoidable.

Andy Lord, managing director of the Underground, said: “We want to continue to run a core Tube service so that National Health Service staff and other key workers can make essential journeys.”

We have further reduced journeys by construction workers by temporarily stopping all work on TfL and Crossrail construction sites. The majority of people are playing their part and avoiding travel, but more people need to stop travelling immediately to save lives.

US jobless claims surge to a record 3.3m

Brendan Greeley in Washington and Mamta Badkar in New York

More than 3m people filed a claim for unemployment benefits last week in the US, eclipsing expectations, as the coronavirus pandemic shut down businesses, cities and entire states.

According to data released by the Department of Labor on Thursday, claims rose to a record high of 3.28m for the week ending March 21, from 282,000 the previous week, showing the staggering scale of job losses in the first full week of claims since parts of the country began to restrict public gatherings and in some cases order residents to stay home.

As states began to release their own claims data ahead of the Department of Labor’s announcement, forecasts have ranged from a Bloomberg consensus of 1.7m claims, to an estimate by the Economic Policy Institute of 3.4m claims.

FCA delays measures to protect savers from pension mis-selling

Josephine Cumbo, pensions correspondent

Measures to better protect thousands of savers from pension mis-selling have been delayed by at least six months as the regulator responds to business disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Financial Conduct Authority was this month expected to publish long-awaited measures to reduce the risks of savers being wrongly advised to give up valuable defined benefit pensions.

But in an update on its website, the FCA said it now expected to announce its package of protections for the market in the second or third quarter of this year. The FCA did not give a reason for the delay but the development came alongside wider government measures to relieve pressure on businesses facing disruption because of coronavirus.

The regulator moved to tighten its rules around pension transfers after finding that too many savers were wrongly recommended by financial advisers to give up valuable defined benefit pensions.

The regulator believes most are better off keeping a DB pension, which pay a secure retirement income, and not trade this benefit for a cash lump sum today.

But since 2015, more than 500,000 people have accepted cash lump sums and transferred their DB pensions to riskier personal pension arrangements.

As part of its measures to better protect savers, the FCA was expected to announce a ban on a controversial fee practice where advisers only get paid if their customer goes ahead with a transfer.

BoE forecasts inflation rate to fall below 1 per cent

Valentina Romei writes

The Bank of England lowered its UK growth and inflation forecast, as it announced that its key policy rate remained unchanged at a record 0.1 per cent.

The central bank said that, despite having little evidence to assess the magnitude of the economic shock from coronavirus, “it is probable that global GDP will fall sharply during the first half of this year.”

The BoE forecast the inflation rate would decline to below 1 per cent in the spring, reflecting lower fuel prices following the sharp drop in the oil price. It expects inflation to pick up further ahead, boosted by the depreciation of sterling.

The bank said it “stands ready to respond further” to support the economy and to act against tightening in financial conditions.

The bank also published its regional agents’ business condition report, which said the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a “sudden, rapid decline in economic activity”. Many agents have described the situation as “being worse than the financial crisis in 2008”.

The Bank regional agents reported “a sharp decline in spending on consumer services and non-food goods”, “widespread cancellations” of projects in business and financial services and weakened manufacturing output, because of a combination of supply-chain disruption, declining demand and measures to avoid contagion.

FT launches coronavirus Q&A hub

The Financial Times has launched a forum where you can ask our reporters about the impact of Covid-19 on banks, corporate finance, your money and more.

Laura Noonan, US banking editor, and James Fontanella-Khan, US corporate finance editor, have been covering this story over the past weeks, tracking the billions of dollars that companies have drawn from credit lines, the deals that coronavirus has put in jeopardy and the upheaval in global finance.

To ask a question please follow this link and post it as a comment.

China to curtail international flights into country

Christian Shepherd in Beijing reports:

China’s aviation regulator is set to severely curtail flights in and out of the country, as part of the government’s escalating measures to prevent a surge of imported coronavirus cases.

To stem the risk of infections coming from overseas, domestic and foreign airlines will be allowed one international passenger route flying in and out of China’s airports per week from March 29, the civil aviation administration said.

Each aircraft must be filled to no more than 75 per cent capacity, Thursday’s statement said, adding that unused aircraft can carry cargo instead.

While official figures state that transmission of the virus within China has slowed to zero, imported cases have grown, as nationals return home to flee outbreaks elsewhere.

Petrobras to shrink production and delay dividend

Andrés Schipani reports from São Paulo:

Brazil’s state oil company Petrobras is slashing production and delaying dividend payments in the face of the coronavirus outbreak.

The measures, including the postponement of R$4.2bn ($841m) in dividends to shareholders, are aimed at preserving cash flow “due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the oil price shock”, the company said.

Petrobras added it would cut 100,000 barrels a day of oil production by the end of March due to oversupply in the market and reduced demand. The company, one of Latin America’s largest oil producers, said it would cut planned investment for the year to $8.5bn from $12bn.

Drugs industry urges EU leaders to secure supply of emergency medicines

Michael Peel in Brussels

EU leaders due to hold a tele-summit this afternoon (1600 CET) will be confronted by a warning of possible disruptions to supplies of vital hospital drugs and experimental potential coronavirus treatments.

Medicines for Europe, the continent’s main generic drugs industry body, has written to the participant heads of state and government calling on them “to act to secure the emergency and the experimental medicines needed for this crisis”.

The organisation points to restrictions increasingly being imposed around the world, including in the EU, on the export of pharmaceuticals during the pandemic. It says another threat is a shortage of air freight capacity caused by the loss of cargo berths on grounded passenger airliners. This is a particular potential problem for off-patent intensive care drugs such as narcotic pain relievers, muscle relaxant ingredients and some older anaesthetics that come in whole, or in part, from China and India.

The European Commission is expected soon – perhaps today – to announce measures aimed at helping essential goods, such as drug supplies and pharmaceutical ingredients, win air cargo space.

G20 leaders silent on oil market turmoil

Anjli Raval reports

Leaders of G20 countries said they would present a united front against the coronavirus pandemic, saying its health, social and economic impacts are their “absolute priority”.

In a statement following a teleconference, the leaders said they were committed to protecting lives, safeguarding jobs and incomes, seeking to restore confidence in the global economy and preserving financial stability.

The heads of 20 leading global economies said they were committed to helping all countries in need and co-ordinating on matters of public health as well as the global financial system. They said they would share health data, best practices and expand the manufacturing of medical supplies.

The leaders’ final statement made no remarks on turmoil in the oil market and any potential future collaboration between producer nations. The call was led by Saudi Arabia, whose oil alliance with Russia to curb oil production collapsed earlier this month, triggering a price war and sending oil prices spiralling to their lowest levels since 2003.

When asked by journalists earlier on Thursday if “the oil issue” would be discussed at the meeting, president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said: “The oil issue, no. However, it is clear that the global economic implications of coronavirus will not be overlooked.”

Airbnb sets up free housing platform for healthcare workers

Alice Hancock reports:

Airbnb has launched a platform to connect medical staff and charity workers assisting with the coronavirus outbreak to free accommodation provided by hosts around the world.

The online homestay marketplace said the aim of the short-term home rental platform was to help house 100,000 people working on the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether hosts offer beds for free or for a fee, Airbnb has said the company will not impose its charges on the booking.

The move follows similar initiatives in Italy and France, launched this week. In Italy, Airbnb agreed to pay all costs associated with stays for medical professionals, while in France it has partnered with the government to cover €50 of the hosts’ costs.

Since the shutdown in global travel, many hotel and accommodation companies have offered their services to help in the fight against coronavirus. In the UK, Hilton, Best Western and Travelodge are among those in talks with the government to turn hotels into hospitals, while in France, Accor, the owner of Novotel and Fairmont hotels, has opened 40 of its hotels to nursing staff.

China’s president calls on world leaders to dismantle trade barriers

Christian Shepherd in Beijing:

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday called on G20 nations to remove trade barriers and cut tariffs in order to aid global economic recovery in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“G20 nations should adopt joint measures … to send a signal that will boost morale for a global economic recovery,” Mr Xi told an emergency G20 video summit called to respond to the global outbreak, according to China’s state broadcaster CCTV.

China will do more to supply raw materials for medicines, daily necessities and epidemic prevention equipment, CCTV reported Mr Xi saying.

The Chinese Communist party is ramping up attempts to reclaim the narrative of the epidemic, recasting itself as a global donor in response to anger over its early mishandling of the outbreak.

China has provided aid to 83 nations fighting coronavirus, according to its foreign ministry.

WHO sees ‘encouraging signs’ in Italy

The World Health Organization has said it has “started to see some encouraging signs” in Europe where the pandemic has claimed nearly 12,000 lives.

The international body said that the region has reported over 220,000 cases, and 11,987 deaths associated with Covid-19. That’s six out of every 10 cases and seven out of every 10 deaths.

“While the situation remains very serious, we are starting to see some encouraging signs,” said Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe. He pointed to a slightly lower rate of increase in cases in Italy, which has the highest number of cases in Europe.

As many countries go through a period of lockdown, Dr Kluge said: “Soon we will be able to determine the degree to which the measures put in place in many countries are having an impact.”

One in 10 confirmed cases of the virus has occurred in health workers, and many more are in quarantine, the WHO said. It also highlighted the affect the pandemic has had on people’s mental health.

Our anxiety and fears should be acknowledged and not be ignored, but better understood and addressed by individuals, communities and governments.

Glencore shuts smaller operations as restrictions are ramped up

Neil Hume in London reports:

Glencore has announced the temporary closure of several smaller operations, including its Colombian thermal coal business, as commodity producing countries impose drastic measures to slow the spread of coronavirus.

In a statement, the Swiss-based miner and commodity trader said:

To date, our larger operations have not been materially impacted, however a number of our smaller assets have had to restrict or stop operations.

Glencore said it had placed Prodeco under care and maintenance after the president of Colombia imposed a 19-day quarantine. Although the mining industry was given an exemption from the presidential decree, Glencore said growing community tensions and restrictions on logistics have made it very difficult to ensure the business’s continued and safe operation.

In Canada, where the government of Quebec has ordered all non-essential businesses to close, Glencore has suspended operations at its Raglan nickel and Matagami zinc operations for three weeks.

Meanwhile, in Chad, the company is taking steps to stop production at its Badila and Mangara oil fields. In South Africa, Glencore’s ferroalloys operations will temporarily close on Thursday night ahead of a three-week nationwide lockdown in the country.

Opinion: Trump shows the wrong kind of American exceptionalism

US national editor Edward Luce writes:

Within 48 hours, America’s coronavirus infections will surpass China’s total. The US will probably replace Italy as the centre of the pandemic. At just the moment Britain dropped its flirtation with “herd immunity”, Donald Trump is embracing it.

This makes America exceptional on two counts. First, it is the only nation whose leader explicitly questions the trade-off between economic growth and saving lives. Second, America is unique in lacking a clear policy. Its federal system offers a menu of epidemiological options. Viruses pay no heed to democracy or autocracy. They do thrive on confusion.

Read the full column here

NBCUniversal chief Jeff Shell tests positive for coronavirus

Anna Nicolaou in New York:

The chief executive of entertainment giant NBCUniversal has tested positive for coronavirus, the latest leading business figure to contract the deadly disease.

In an email to staff, Jeff Shell urged NBCU’s 60,000-plus employees to take care of each other as he revealed that he had tested positive for Covid-19.

“Although the virus has been tough to cope with, I have managed to work remotely in LA and am improving every day,” Mr Shell said in the email which was viewed by the FT.

Mr Shell, previously head of the Universal film studio, was last year named chief executive of NBCUniversal, which spans a large portfolio of theme parks, broadcast and cable television channels and movies.

Other powerful entertainment executives have in recent weeks contracted coronavirus, including Universal Music chief Lucian Grainge and BT chief Philip Jansen.

Iranian NGOs call on UN to intervene over US sanctions

Monavar Khalaj in Tehran reports:

Hundreds of Iranian non-governmental and civil society organisations have signed a petition calling on the UN to take action to help “lessen or lift” US sanctions against the country.

The petition, which was signed by 343 NGOs and civil society organisations and addressed to UN secretary-general António Guterres, said the “unilateral and inhumane” sanctions were costing lives on a daily basis.

The groups said that the US sanctions made it difficult for the government of Iran “to absorb funds to purchase required goods” which they said would create “a vicious cycle” that risked worsening the crisis.

Iran said on Wednesday that 43 Iranian physicians, nurses and health workers had lost their lives since the virus first hit the country on February 19.

Although food and medicine are exempted from the US sanctions, Iran says the tough restrictions have frequently delayed imports because it is cut off from the international financial system.

Saudi Arabia delays decision on Hajj pilgrims as coronavirus looms

Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad:

Saudi Arabia has halted discussions with Pakistan over finalising the number of pilgrims from the country that will be permitted to perform the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca this year, amid concerns over coronavirus upsetting the most important annual Islamic ritual.

This year’s Hajj pilgrimage is due to take place in the first week of August. But preparations, including assigning quotas for the number of pilgrims from each country, are decided several months in advance.

A senior Pakistani government official on Thursday told the FT that Saudi authorities had said: “We [the Saudi government] are in no shape to have a formal agreement with you [Pakistan] as conditions are so uncertain due to the coronavirus.”

Saudi Arabia had “put a hold on quotas for Hajj with other countries until the coronavirus situation clears up. Right now, there seems to be no clear resolution in sight, at least not in the near future” he said.

Last year, roughly 2.5m Muslim pilgrims performed the Hajj, which is a five to six-day event involving travel between Mecca and its surrounding suburbs.

Travel agents have warned that a suspension of this year’s Hajj for Muslim travellers from outside Saudi Arabia will further dent revenues for already stressed airlines who rely heavily on their revenues.

“Last year there were approximately 1.8m pilgrims from outside Saudi Arabia who travelled for Hajj from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America,” said one travel operator in Karachi.

“If pilgrims from outside the Kingdom are stopped, I think there will also be a hit to the Saudi economy at a time when oil prices are low. These people go and stay in Saudi Arabia for up to six weeks. They spend money on hotels, food and shopping.”

China to ban majority of foreigners from entering country

Christian Shepherd in Beijing reports:

China’s foreign ministry is set to temporarily suspend entry to China for almost all visas and residence permits, effectively barring foreign nationals from coming to the country.

Starting on March 28, entrance into China will not be granted, including for visa-free transit, with the exception of a small number of diplomatic visas, the ministry said in a statement.

Individuals who need to come to China for urgent humanitarian reasons, as well as for essential trade or science, must apply for an exemption.

China’s foreign ministry said that having considered the response to the pandemic by many countries, it was left with “no alternative” but to take the temporary measure.

EU countries urged to help ease air cargo capacity squeeze

Michael Peel in Brussels:

The European Commission has urged EU countries to help ease an air cargo capacity squeeze that threatens imports of vital hospital drugs and other coronavirus pandemic supplies.

Brussels has asked EU states to take measures including increasing temporary traffic rights for air cargo operations from outside the bloc, removing curfews on night-time take-offs and landings, and facilitating the use of passenger aircraft for cargo-only operations.

“Continued and uninterrupted air cargo services are vital for the economy and for fighting the coronavirus,” the EU executive said.

Medicines for Europe, the continent’s main generic drugs industry body, this week called on the EU to consider still more far-reaching measures. These include using state aid to airlines as a lever to guarantee cargo capacity for medicines, pharmaceutical ingredients and medical equipment, or giving direct financial support to charter aircraft dedicated to such shipments.

IMF approves $1.3bn loan for Jordan

Andrew England in London:

The IMF has approved a $1.3bn loan for Jordan as the Arab state’s struggling economy comes under additional pressure caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The fund said the loan programme was designed before the Covid-19 outbreak, but was adjusted to support unbudgeted spending for emergency outlays and medical supplies.

“The Jordanian economy has continued facing significant challenges. Macroeconomic stability and external buffers have been preserved, but fiscal vulnerabilities remain,” said Mitsuhiro Furusawa, deputy managing director at the IMF. “Donor support through budget grants and concessional financing will be critical to help Jordan cope with the effects of the Covid-19 outbreak and the Syrian refugee crisis and to support programme objectives.”

Jordan was struggling with lacklustre growth and rampant youth unemployment before the coronavirus outbreak. Its economic woes have been exacerbated by conflicts in neighbouring Syria and Iraq, which closed vital trade routes and caused up to 1.3m Syrians to seek refuge in the country.

During the past week, it has imposed strict measures to contain the spread of coronavirus, including implementing emergency laws to prevent travel between the country’s 12 governates and imposing a curfew on the population of 10m people.

Jordan has more than 170 cases of coronavirus, but has not reported any deaths.

UK police to fine those who disobey lockdown rules

Robert Wright in London:

UK police will have the right to fine on the spot anyone seen in breach of coronavirus lockdown rules and will be able to issue an escalating scale of fines for subsequent offences.

The regulations, published by the Home Office on Thursday, are intended to give muscle to efforts to minimise mixing between people to prevent the spread of the virus.

The department unveiled measures to increase the number of officers available. The civil service would ensure that members of its staff who volunteered as special – or volunteer – constables would be freed up to assist in the national effort “to the greatest extent possible”, the department said. Tax and pension rules would be relaxed to remove disincentives to staying in work for officers who were nearing retirement and to encourage those who had left to return.

Officers are expected initially to ask those who breach the rules to return home. They will resort to other measures, which will include arrest for those refusing to comply, when other methods fail.

New York coronavirus death toll jumps to 385

Joshua Chaffin in New Jersey:

The coronavirus death toll in New York has risen to 385 and governor Andrew Cuomo warned that there was worse to come.

“This is the bad news: the number of deaths is rising,” Mr Cuomo said on Thursday, noting that many patients had been on ventilators for as long as 20 or 30 days. That suggested they would have worse outcomes, the governor said.

Overall, New York now has 37,258 confirmed cases — up by more than 6,000 in one day — including more than 21,000 in New York City. In a worrying sign, the number of hospitalisations jumped in one day from 3,800 to 5,327.

The pandemic is also taking a toll on the state’s finances. Mr Cuomo predicted that it would lead to a loss of $10bn to $15bn in tax revenue.

US regulators call on banks to offer ‘small-dollar loans’

James Politi in Washington:

US financial regulators including the Federal Reserve have called on banks to offer “responsible small-dollar loans” to consumers and businesses as they face economic distress due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

The agencies said on Thursday they wanted to “specifically encourage” financial institutions to provide such loans since they had a crucial role to play in mitigating “temporary cash-flow imbalances, unexpected expenses, or income shortfalls during periods of economic stress or disaster recoveries”.

The joint statement comes amid a broader push by the Fed to encourage banks to provide more credit to the US economy as it faces a slump due to the pandemic.

US central bank officials believe the US banking system is in a better position compared with the 2008 crisis and can help stabilise the economy even if it means drawing down some of the capital and liquidity cushions built up in recent years.

A major concern among US policymakers is how to ensure some degree of financial safety net for small businesses who have been forced to shut down by local authorities, or are facing dwindling revenues.

The statement on small-dollar loans was issued by the Fed along with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the National Credit Union Administration and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Canada in talks with US after Trump considers troops at border

The Canadian government is in talks with the US about a possible plan to place US troops along the countries’ border in an effort to block illegal crossings.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to confirm media reports that the White House was considering deploying the US military within 30km of the US-Canada border.

“We are in discussions with the United States on this,” Mr Trudeau told reporters at his daily press conference in Ottawa.

The border is closed to all but essential travellers. Canada’s Global News reported that the Trump administration was considering a military presence to block illegal crossings along the nearly 9,000km frontier but that no decision had been made.

Mr Trudeau indicated that he would oppose a military presence. The prime minister stressed the importance of trade between the two countries along what he called the world’s longest demilitarised border. “We feel that it needs to remain that way”, he said.

US suspends plan to buy oil for strategic reserve

Derek Brower in London:

A White House plan to restock the country’s strategic petroleum reserve with tens of millions of barrels of crude bought from small shale producers was suspended on Thursday. 

The US Department of Energy withdrew a tender to buy an initial 30m barrels from drillers suffering from the oil-price collapse after Congress removed the plan’s $3bn funding from the $2tn rescue package agreed on Wednesday night.

Shaylyn Hynes, a DOE spokeswoman, said the plan remained “a common sense move benefiting taxpayers and supporting our nation’s economic and national security interest”. 

She added that energy secretary Dan Brouillette had called on Congress to fulfill the president’s request as soon as possible. 

The US oil benchmark fell more than 4 per cent by midday in New York, to $23.40/b. 

The planned purchases marked a reversal for President Donald Trump, who previously authorised oil sales from the SPR, arguing soaring shale production made the emergency stock less important. 

Executives at some shale producers suggested the cancellation of the purchases reflected successful lobbying by big oil companies against moves to support smaller rivals through the price crash. A new bill may be necessary to authorise the purchases.

US stocks extend gains as investors welcome stimulus

Wall Street added to its gains on Thursday as investors cheered the $2tn stimulus bill cleared by the US Senate and appeared to overlook data that showed a record number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits.

The S&P 500 climbed as much as 5 per cent eyeing its third consecutive day of gains. Energy and utilities led the way with gains of 7.4 per cent and 6.7 per cent respectively. Meanwhile, the Nasdaq Composite climbed 4 per cent.

The stimulus expands jobless benefits and provides for direct transfers of money to Americans. The bill could help ease pressure on businesses and the labour market, which saw a record 3.28m people applying for jobless benefits last week.

Investors were also reassured by Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell’s remarks that the central bank would not “run out of ammunition”.

Treasury yields slipped, with the yield on the US 10-year down 4.9 basis points to 0.8065 per cent. Yields move inversely to price. The dollar index fell 1.4 per cent.

Exclusive: Banks in talks with ministers to freeze UK housing market

James Pickford and Nicholas Megaw report:

Banks and building societies are in talks with ministers over whether to call a halt to the UK market for home purchases, as the fallout from coronavirus hits their ability to offer mortgages, service existing borrowers and obtain valuation surveys on properties. 

UK Finance, the finance industry body, has written to lenders saying it was seeking “urgent clarification” over the future of the housing market, which is struggling to operate under extremely difficult conditions. 

The note, which was seen by the FT, said the government had now advised that “home buyers and renters should, as far as possible, delay moving to a new house while emergency measures are in place to fight coronavirus”.

“If moving is unavoidable for contractual reasons and the parties are unable to reach an agreement to delay, people must follow advice on social distancing to minimise the spread of the virus.”

Read more here

Russia to tax bank deposits to fund coronavirus package

Henry Foy in Moscow:

Measures introduced by Russian president Vladimir Putin to soften the economic blow of the coronavirus pandemic will be partly funded by a levy on bank deposits, tapping nest eggs held by the country’s pensioners and middle-class households.

Mr Putin announced the scheme in a solemn national address on Wednesday that signalled a shift in his attitude towards the spread of Covid-19.

The Kremlin’s decision contrasts with other governments, which have announced large rescue packages to help companies and taxpayers weather a sudden loss in revenues or incomes but in doing so have refrained from increasing taxes.

Russia has outlined handouts to families, tax holidays for small businesses and reductions in employers’ state contributions.

Read the story in full here

Chancellor pledges help for 95% of Britain’s self-employed

Jim Pickard in London:

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has promised new help for 95 per cent of Britain’s self-employed as a cash grant worth 80 per cent of average monthly profits up to £2,500 a month.

However, Mr Sunak is limiting the support to those with profits of up to £50,000 a year in order to make sure that it does not go to high earners, he said at the government’s daily briefing on Thursday.

“This scheme will be open to people across the UK for at least three months and I will extend it for longer if necessary,” he said. The self-employed would be able to continue to work while taking the grants, he added.

“You have not been forgotten. We will not leave you behind.”

Mr Sunak said the government had worked with unions and business leaders to come up with the support package.

Small businesses already benefit from interest-free loans, business rate holidays and a scheme providing grants of up to £25,000 for companies, he said.

The announcement came less than a week after the government promised to subsidise the wages of all employees for the duration of the crisis.

I know many self-employed people are deeply anxious about the support available for them. Musicians, sound engineers, plumbers and electricians…hairdressers and childminders and many others….risk losing their livelihoods.

Italy death toll climbs above 8,100

Miles Johnson in Rome:

A further 662 people have died in Italy from Covid-19 in the past 24 hours as the country’s total cases rose above 80,000, official numbers showed on Thursday.

Italy’s total number of cases rose by 8.2 per cent to 80,539, marking the fourth consecutive day where the daily growth rate in diagnosed cases has been under 10 per cent. This slight deceleration in new cases has given Italian officials hope that the peak of the outbreak is becoming closer after a nationwide lockdown began on March 9.

Earlier on Thursday, a coronavirus test for Italy’s head of civil protection Angelo Borrelli — who went into self-isolation on Wednesday along with his entire team — came back negative.

The total number of dead now stands at 8,165, the highest of any country in the world. The total number of patients who have recovered increased to 10,361 from 9,362, while the number requiring intensive care treatment rose to 3,612 from 3,489 the day before.

Labour leaders call on Trump to push for boost in mask production

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in New York:

US labour leaders urged President Trump on Thursday to compel companies to produce more masks and ventilators to address urgent shortages faced by healthcare workers on the frontline of the coronavirus fight.

Mr Trump has held off applying the Defense Production Act, as business groups have argued that they are rising to the challenge voluntarily. “We believe manufacturers are able to step up and supply the needs the country is facing,” Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said on Thursday.

But in a call with reporters, three union heads called on Mr Trump to apply the DPA immediately to accelerate production and improve co-ordination so supplies reach the areas of greatest need.

“The administration’s current piecemeal efforts to increase the production of N95 masks and ventilators have not worked and quite frankly will not work,” said Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Hospitals and healthcare workers should not be left scrambling to source equipment themselves, said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union: “The president has all the authority he needs to co-ordinate a robust, co-ordinated federal response and he should have done it months ago.”

The union leaders were joined by Chris Murphy, the Democratic senator for Connecticut, who introduced legislation this week to require the president to take control of the nation’s medical supply chain.

“The problem is that the private sector supply chain has broken down. It is a ‘Lord of the Flies’ situation today in which supplies are not heading to areas of need but are instead heading to places where the money is or where the political connection is,” he said: “It is time to federalise the national critical medical supply chain.”

India prolongs ban on international air travel

Amy Kazmin in New Delhi reports:

India has announced that its ban on commercial international passenger flights will be extended until April 14, when the country’s current strict 21-day lockdown is due to end.

The Indian government had initially said it was banning the arrival of any commercial passenger flights for a week starting from March 22, as part of a bid to stop the import of coronavirus cases from travellers returning from overseas trips.

But on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a strict nationwide curfew in which he ordered the nation’s 1.37bn people to stay at home for three weeks, unless they were health care workers or provided other essential services.

In light of the curfew, India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation said the suspension on international flights — which has left many Indians stranded after failing to reach home before the closure — would be extended until April 14, when the current curfew is due to end.

Some foreign governments are attempting to run special flights to evacuate their own citizens from India, and help return some stranded Indians home. Domestic flights in India, and nearly all other public transportation, has also been suspended for the duration of the lockdown.

Ukraine to close its borders on Friday evening

Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv:

Ukraine will close its border crossings on Friday evening to curb the spread of coronavirus after giving citizens abroad two weeks to return, President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address to the nation on Thursday.

Mr Zelensky said all cross-border passenger transport would be halted while the export and import of goods would continue.

“Two weeks ago, I called upon citizens to immediately return to Ukraine. The majority, and I’m thankful to them, did this independently. The others, more than 80,000 Ukrainians, we returned home with planes, trains and buses,” he said.

Today, we have no more time to wait. We are facing the difficult choice between citizens still abroad and the security of 40m citizens within the country.

In a bid to prevent a spike in Covid-19 cases, which would overwhelm Ukraine’s dilapidated hospitals, Ukraine began imposing restrictions earlier this month. Charter flights were organised to a handful of countries for the return of citizens stranded by a freeze on flights.

On Thursday, Ukraine reported 169 cases of Covid-19 and five deaths, but observers have warned that accurate infection rates are under-reported due to low testing.

Responding to anger sparked by media reports that some hospitals had set up VIP sections for influential politicians and businessmen, Mr Zelensky, said: “No politician or businessman will get better conditions than the average Ukrainian in our state and communal hospitals,” he said.

UAE announces weekend restrictions

Simeon Kerr in Dubai:

Residents in the United Arab Emirates were sent “national emergency alerts” to their smartphones on Thursday, informing them of restrictions on traffic and public movement from 8pm until 6am over the weekend.

Police cars also circulated residential districts, with loudspeakers playing recorded messages in Arabic and English urging everyone to “stay home except for emergencies” and “to please refrain from all gatherings” as the UAE ramps up measures to contain the spread of coronavirus.

The announcements came as the UAE prepares to conduct a nationwide cleaning programme for utilities and public transport from 8pm until 6am, starting on Thursday and ending on Sunday morning.

The authorities have been urging residents to stay at home over the weekend, with exceptions for key workers and those needing to collect supplies.

The interior ministry has confirmed that the public will still be able to access supermarkets and pharmacies, despite restrictions on movement when public transport will be shut down.

Bolsonaro refuses to shut ‘religious activities’ in Brazil

Andrés Schipani reports from São Paulo

Brazil’s hard-right president Jair Bolsonaro decreed on Thursday that “religious activities” cannot be shut, ignoring warnings that gatherings could fuel the spread of coronavirus.

Mr Bolsonaro, a Catholic who was re-baptised Evangelical in the Jordan river, had criticised many of Brazil’s governors and mayors for imposing lockdowns to slow the outbreak, but made sure to exclude religious services out of any potential ban. In an interview last week he described the churches as “people’s last refuge”.

For Brazilian politicians, ignoring religion is hardly a choice, even in a country where the confirmed cases of Covid-19 rose to 2,433 and 57 fatalities on Wednesday, and anger towards the president over his handling of the pandemic is heating up.

About 86 per cent of Brazilians declared themselves Christian in the last census in 2010, with nearly 65 per cent saying they were Catholic and more than 22 per cent evangelical Christian.

The evangelical brethren, in particular, has grown fast. Edir Macedo, Brazil’s most prominent evangelical pastor had downplayed coronavirus as a “tactic of Satan” aimed at spreading fear.

Mexican president shows muddled response

Jude Webber reports from Mexico City

Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador displayed a confused response to his government’s extreme social distancing measures as data pointed to an economic slowdown even before the impact of coronavirus.

“There is no exact science in this but, according to our technicians, specialists and scientists, by April 19 we’ll be able to emerge from the gravity,” the populist leader told his daily news conference. He is maintaining his activities, including a trip to four states this weekend.

But Hugo López Gatell, health undersecretary and the public face of Mexico’s coronavirus fight, insisted that Mexicans need to stay at home en masse to slow the spread of the disease during a social distancing campaign running until April 19, before the “unstoppable” epidemic transmission phase. After listening to his explanation, the president backtracked.

“So April 19 [is about] going gently into phase three?” he asked. “But that’s positive, it’s an encouraging sign.” Mr López Obrador has drawn fire for failing to recognise the gravity of the situation, urging Mexicans to go out to restaurants to keep the economy going and to keep their spirits up.

Dr López-Gatell said he would like to implement measures that were “as extreme as possible”.

However, we have to take the social reality into account … we have profound social and economic inequality … we can’t restrict social and economic activity as much [as in some other countries] because we’d cause possibly irreparable damage.

Some 56 per cent of Mexico’s workers are in the informal sector, with no benefits.

Mexico has 475 confirmed cases, but experts believe that a lack of testing means the figure could be higher.

France authorises chloroquine treatment for coronavirus

Victor Mallet in Paris

The French government has formally authorised the use of chloroquine, an antimalarial drug, in the treatment of hospitalised coronavirus patients, despite the lack of complete clinical trials.

A decree approving the use of the drug alone or in combination with antibiotics was published on Thursday, following a public dispute between a senior Marseille doctor who insisted the treatment was a lifesaver and the government, which wanted to complete at least preliminary clinical trials because of potentially dangerous side effects.

Didier Raoult, the doctor concerned, thanked health minister Olivier Véran “for listening”.

A similar debate has been raging in the US, where President Donald Trump hailed chloroquine as a wonder drug already available for coronavirus patients, only to be contradicted by Stephen Hahn, head of the Food and Drug Administration, who said there were plans for a clinical trial.

Temasek to wade into Singapore Airlines’ $13bn debt and equity raising

Stefania Palma in Singapore

Singapore Airlines is set to raise proceeds of up to S$19bn ($13bn) via a bridge loan and by issuing new equity and mandatory convertible bonds in an attempt to counter the fallout from coronavirus.

Temasek, Singapore’s state-backed investment company and the airline’s largest shareholder, will come to the airline’s aid by not only promising to subscribe to the bond and equity issues, but to act as a backstop for the balance.

The airline will offer shareholders up to S$9.7bn via a 10-year mandatory convertible bond and S$5.3bn in new equity via a rights issue. The company will initially raise S$3.5bn through the bond, with the option of issuing the remaining S$6.2bn in the following months.

Singapore Airlines has also agreed a S$4bn bridge loan with DBS, the city state’s largest bank, to meet “near-term liquidity requirements”, it said in a statement.
The rights issues, which are subject to shareholder approval, will help the company “fund capital and operational expenditure requirements”. Temasek will vote in favour of these initiatives, the statement said.

Singapore Airlines on Thursday morning called for a rare trading halt on the city state’s exchange pending an announcement.

The airline this week said it would cut 96 per cent of its capacity originally scheduled until the end of April in what it called “the greatest challenge” the group has faced in its existence.

UK aid for the self-employed could cost at least £9bn — officials

Jim Pickard in London

More details of the UK government support for self-employed people have been set out following chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement.

Officials anticipate that it will cost at least £9bn, based on £3bn/month for three months, and the scheme could be further extended.

There has been a backlash against the fact that payments will not start until early June, but the government insists that the money will be backdated for the intervening period.

An average worker will receive about £940 a month. While there are 5.75m self-employed people in the UK, 1.7m will be ineligible because less than half their income is from self-employment while another 200,000 will be ineligible because of the £50,000 annual profits cap — designed to restrict the payments so they are not received by the highest-paid 5 per cent.

Trump outlines plan to classify counties by risk level

Aime Williams in Washington:

The US government will categorise all American counties according to their exposure to coronavirus as expanded testing helps identify the nation’s pandemic hotspots, said President Donald Trump on Thursday.

In a letter to all state governors, Mr Trump said counties would be classified low, medium or high risk, according to data collected by “robust surveillance testing”, while guidelines for how strictly states should enforce social distancing rules would be issued soon.

Mr Trump said “expanded testing capabilities” would help the administration “quickly” identify the country’s virus hotspots.

“With each passing day, our increasingly extensive testing abilities are giving us a better understanding of the virus and its path,” he added. “As testing gives us more information about who has been infected, we are tracking the virus and isolating it to prevent further spread. This new information will drive the next phase in our war against this invisible enemy.”

The US has faced delays in testing its population for coronavirus, with shortages of key ingredients worsening the situation. The lack of testing has meant public health officials are struggling to understand the extent to which the virus has spread, and therefore which measures they should be taking to stop it.

World Bank seeks debt relief for governments of poor countries

Jonathan Wheatley in London

The World Bank has called on private-sector bondholders to delay repayments due from governments of poor countries to help them tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

Axel van Trotsenberg, the World Bank’s managing director of operations, said debt relief was essential to help the most vulnerable countries prepare their economies and healthcare systems for a coming “human tsunami” and that “all creditors [should be] involved to ensure a broad and equitable participation”.

His appeal followed a joint call this week by the IMF and the World Bank for governments to suspend repayments on country-to-country loans to the world’s poorest countries. An estimated $18bn of repayments is due on such loans this year.

The IMF has promised $50bn in loans to emerging countries including $10bn to low income countries at zero interest rates. The World Bank promised an additional $14bn in fast-track finance to the public and private sectors in poor countries.

“If other people give the same terms as the World Bank, ie long-term concessional finance or grants, that is fine,” he said. “Those who don’t, should. We provide massive support and they should do it, too.”

He added: “When there is collective action it would be good to have comparable action [from private bondholders].”

The world’s poorest countries have built up large amounts of debt in the decade of low interest rates since the global financial crisis of 2008-09, especially by issuing foreign currency bonds. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, according to the IMF, external debt rose from $235bn in 2008 to $634bn last year, up from 21 per cent of GDP to 36 per cent.

France announces highest daily death toll of 365

Victor Mallet in Paris

A record 365 people died of coronavirus in the past 24 hours in French hospitals, including a 16-year-old girl in the Paris region, the government announced.

Jérôme Salomon, director-general of health, said the numbers of Covid-19 deaths in hospitals in France had risen to 1,696 since the start of the pandemic. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country rose to 29,155, and the total in intensive care also increased to 3,375.

He suggested that the real number of coronavirus cases and deaths was likely to be considerably higher than revealed by the hospital data, with fatalities in old people’s homes and elsewhere adding to the toll. Higher than usual death rates among the over-65s were being recorded in at least five regions of France, he said.

The government is imposing even stricter measures to protect hundreds of thousands of elderly in old people’s homes after reports of numerous infections and deaths in various institutions.

British government tells university students not to return home

Andrew Jack in London

The British government has told an estimated 350,000 university students who are still in term-time lodgings not to return home, as it stepped up measures to limit the spread of coronavirus.

The advice covers international students as well as British ones, and follows weeks of uncertainty and sometimes contradictory messages from universities, which have been encouraging most to leave for their own countries or homes as they reduce operations and switch to teaching online.

Universities UK, which represents the sector, said:

While many students have already left their university halls, it will be an absolute priority to continue to support those who remain behind. Universities will make sure these students have everything they need and plans will be in place to ensure that critical services – such as security, heating, water and electricity, are maintained.

Morgan Stanley chief pledges to not cut jobs because of coronavirus

Laura Noonan in New York

Morgan Stanley will not make any layoffs this year because of the coronavirus, chief executive James Gorman promised in a firm-wide memo on Thursday.

“I am sure some, if not many, of you are worried about your jobs,” the memo said.
“While long term we can’t be sure how this will play out, we want to commit to you that there will not be a reduction in force at Morgan Stanley in 2020.”

The memo came hours after eye-popping US jobless numbers. “Way too many people have lost their jobs overnight, and it is essential for governments to act as aggressively as they can,” Mr Gorman said, praising the Fed’s “extraordinary, but in the circumstances, necessary” response to the crisis so far.

Morgan Stanley, which has around 60,000 staff worldwide, laid off 1,500 at the end of last year in an efficiencies drive.

China bears ‘special responsibility’ for pandemic, US state department says

Katrina Manson in Washington

The US state department launched a veiled attack on China on Thursday, warning countries in the midst of their fight against the deadly coronavirus outbreak against accepting gifts from countries with strings attached or that lack quality.

Jim Richardson, the state department’s director of foreign assistance resources who issued the warning, said the US is sending an extra $174m to 64 countries to help them fend off the spread of Covid-19. But he admitted that due to a shortage of personal protective equipment at home, the aid will not include masks or other gear vital to fighting the virus and will instead focus on food, sanitation and water.

China by contrast has in past days sent masks, gloves, test kits and even doctors to help a host of European and Asian countries. Mr Richardson insisted China bore “a special responsibility” for the pandemic, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Beyond Meat gets the chop by Goldman analysts

Emiko Terazono in London

Goldman Sachs downgraded plant-based meat group Beyond Meat from neutral to sell, cutting its target price by almost 70 per cent to $39 a share from $129.

The bank’s analysts said that with over half of its sales in the foodservice sector, the plant-based meat substitute company was among those directly impacted by the coronavirus outbreak across the companies they covered.

“Not only do we see traffic declines representing a substantial near-term sales headwind (with a pickup in retail as a partial offset), but we also see meaningful risk to further foodservice distribution gains in the near-to-medium term, with plant-based menu innovation a substantially lower priority for operators in the current environment, in our view,” said Goldman in a note.

Beyond Meat shares fell as much as 9 per cent to $66.42 a share, but later recovered above $70, or 4 per cent lower from the previous day’s close. The company could not be reached for comment.

The bank also upgraded stocks for potential beneficiaries of Covid-19 and companies that also maintain healthy balance sheets, including food ingredients company Ingredion, and companies that would be supported by demand in crop input including seeds, pesticides and fertiliser, such as Nutrion.

Wall Street rallies again amid optimism for fiscal stimulus

US stocks completed their best three-day stretch since the 1930s after the US Senate unanimously approved a $2tn economic stimulus package aimed at countering the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

The S&P 500 advanced 6.2 per cent as utilities, real estate and health care led the charge higher. The Dow Jones Industrial Average climbed out of its bear market, with a gain of 6.4 per cent bringing the blue-chip gauge more than 20 per cent above its recent low. The Nasdaq Composite jumped 5.6 per cent.

The benchmark S&P 500 is on track to record its largest weekly rise since 1974 if its current gains hold, but sits within striking distance of its best week since June 1938.

The rally on Thursday handed the S&P 500 its sharpest three-day rise since 1933, while the Dow registered its best three-day run since 1931, according to Reuters.

Government bonds also rose, sending yields lower. The yield on the 10-year Treasury ticked down 2.4 basis points to 0.832 per cent.

Safran scraps dividend and withdraws guidance

David Keohane in Paris

Safran has scrapped its dividend, withdrawn its guidance for this year and put in place a new €3bn credit line as the French jet engine maker seeks to restore order to its balance sheet amidst the ongoing impact of the coronavirus.

The scrapping of the dividend will save Safran, which is the third-largest aerospace supplier in the world, some €1bn in cash.

In cutting the dividend, Safran joins an ever growing list of companies who are axing promised payments to shareholders in an attempt to preserve cash and avoid a backlash if bailouts from governments are eventually needed.

“Very significant measures are implemented such as a pause in capital expenditure, the definition of new objectives for R&D and the reduction of direct and indirect costs,” said Safran in a statement.

The group will step up cost saving measures put in place after Boeing’s decision to shut down the Boeing 737 Max assembly line.

It will also issue new 2020 guidance when “impacts on the business and the adjustment measures can be assessed with sufficient precision”.

“In this critical period, our attention is focused on taking care of our employees and monitoring our customers and suppliers. While preserving cash in the very short term, we are preparing to re-establish and strengthen operations when the situation recovers,” said Safran’s chief executive Philippe Petitcolin.

Mexico reporting sharply lower number of cases versus US border states

Jude Webber in Mexcio City

Mexico is reporting a dramatically lower number of cases than neighbouring states on the other side of the US border, underscoring fears that a low level of testing may mean the true number of cases is higher.

In a comparison of official data, México ¿cómo vamos?, a think-tank, found Baja California had a 227-times lower number of reported cases than California. Mexican states bordering Texas had just 76 cases, 18-times lower than Texas.

Size and population density may be one reason – California is not only much bigger but also has an enormously higher population density than Baja California, for example.

Together, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua and Tamaulipas have an average of 66 people per sq km; Texas’ density is some 40 per sq km.

Mexico’s foreign ministry had no immediate explanation but was looking into the data.

US overtakes China for most confirmed coronavirus cases

Lauren Fedor in Washington and Steve Bernard in London

The US has overtaken China to become the country with the largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world, with 81,943 Americans now testing positive for Covid-19.

State-by-state figures published late on Thursday showed confirmed cases of coronavirus in the US had overtaken the 81,285 cases reported by China, with the biggest outbreaks in New York, New Jersey and California. A total of 1,177 people in America have died from the rapidly-spreading virus.

The latest US figures underscore how the centre of gravity for the coronavirus pandemic has shifted from Asia to the West. The US overtook China on the same day Beijing said it was temporarily suspending visits from almost all foreign nationals — a marked reversal to policies implemented in the US and Europe in January to limit travellers from China.

China, where the global outbreak first began, does not include positive tests from people who did not exhibit symptoms in its totals, casting doubt on the data. There are now 523,163 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Brazil’s coronavirus cases approach 3,000

Andres Schipani in São Paulo

The number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Brazil jumped to 2,915 on Thursday as Jair Bolsonaro faced a growing backlash over his handling of the pandemic.

The rightwing president has labelled as a “crime” the actions of some state governors and mayors who shut down public venues and non-essential businesses to slow the coronavirus outbreak.

Mr Bolsonaro defended the idea of isolating only the elderly and other at-risk groups. His handling of the pandemic has prompted a feud with governors and spurred protests by Brazilians. Every night for more than a week Brazilians have been banging pots and pans from their balconies and windows yelling “Bolsonaro assassin!”

Ireland records 10 new fatalities

Arthur Beesley in Dublin

Ireland has reported a sharp rise in coronavirus deaths with 10 new fatalities, more in a single day than the total number previously. There have now been 19 deaths in the Irish republic, and three new Northern Ireland deaths took the total there to 10.

On Thursday night Dublin officials reported 255 new Covid-19 cases, the biggest increase yet in a single day that took the total to 1,819. Northern Ireland officials reported 32 new infections, bringing the total to 241 and the number on the island of Ireland to 2,060.

As the Irish parliament rushed through emergency laws on Thursday to prevent rent increases and evictions for the duration of the pandemic, MPs stopped the debate for one minute of sustained applause in tribute to healthcare workers battling Covid-19.

EU imposes two-week deadline to come up with joint fiscal response

Jim Brunsden in Brussels

EU leaders have given themselves a two-week deadline to come up with a joint fiscal response to coronavirus, saying that the plans “should take into account the unprecedented nature of the Covid-19 shock”.

In a video conference lasting over five hours, governments sparred over how far to go at this stage in pooling economic strength to fight the crisis. A push from governments including Spain and Italy for nations to jointly issue “coronabonds” came up against firm resistance from Germany and the Netherlands.

EU finance ministers will now push ahead with plans they discussed earlier this week for the euro area’s bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism, to play a role, while also exploring other options.

Charles Michel, the European Council president, said that leaders had discussed “all the different possibilities”.

“The Eurogroup will give, within two weeks, a new report with proposals,” he said. On some topics “we need to continue the political dialogue between us in order to be united”.

“Our response will be stepped up, as necessary, with further action in an inclusive way, in light of developments, in order to deliver a comprehensive response,” the leaders said in their statement.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said that she had also proposed to leaders that Brussels host an online pledging event to finance work to develop a vaccine.

US Navy hospital ship to reach New York weeks ahead of schedule

Katrina Manson in Washington

Donald Trump said a US Navy hospital ship would reach New York on Monday, weeks ahead of schedule. The USNS Comfort has been drafted into the nationwide fight against coronavirus and will take hundreds of patients who do not have the disease to free up sorely stretched bed capacity in New York City.

Routine maintenance had been expected to take weeks but Mr Trump said teams worked quickly to ready the vessel, which he said he would launch from its Virginia dock on the east coast at the weekend.

“I’ll kiss it goodbye,” the US president told reporters on Thursday. “There is something very beautiful about it.”

A second hospital ship, the USNS Mercy, is due to reach Los Angeles on Friday.

S&P downgrades Mexico’s debt on coronavirus impact

Jude Webber in Mexico City

S&P Global has downgraded Mexico’s sovereign debt because of the economic impact of coronavirus and the oil price shock. The rating remains investment grade, but the outlook is negative.

The ratings agency said foreign currency debt was downgraded to BBB from BBB+ and local currency debt to BBB+ from A-. BBB- is the agency’s lowest investment-grade rating.

“We assume that the government will take steps to contain our projected widening of the fiscal deficit and the increase in the sovereign’s debt burden resulting from the economic downturn — caused by recent external shocks,” the agency said in a note.

“However, prolonged poor fiscal performance and a resulting rising debt burden, or the risk of potentially weak policy implementation, could lead us to lower the rating. In addition, potential increases in contingent liabilities from the energy sector could worsen the sovereign’s debt burden and lead to a downgrade. The financial profile of government-owned energy company Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) has weakened significantly over the past five years and has become more vulnerable amid the decline in oil prices.”

S&P moves its sovereign and Pemex ratings in tandem, meaning a critical second downgrade at Mexico’s state oil company was nearing. It has Pemex on BBB+ currently. All eyes will be on Moody’s Investors Service, which has Pemex on Baa3, the last rung of investment grade.

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