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Here’s what market watchers are saying about the virus spread

China virus spooks investors.
Medical staff members carry a patient into the Jinyintan hospital, where patients infected by a mysterious SARS-like virus are being treated, in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. Image: Getty Images

Financial markets saw a flight from risk in Asia trading Tuesday amid growing concern about the outbreak of a virus originating in central China.

Risk assets from Hong Kong and Chinese stocks to the Korean won tumbled, while havens such as the yen and Treasuries climbed following reports that multiple medical workers have been infected by the virus and the death count grew to four people. The moves come as hundreds of millions of Chinese prepared to travel across the country and globally for the Lunar New Year and a day after Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Hong Kong by one notch due to the ongoing political turmoil there.

Here are a selection of comments from market watchers on their concerns:

Cash out

In the wake of the downgrade, “investors would want to cash out before the holiday because there is so much bad news,“ said Jackson Wong, asset management director at Amber Hill Capital Ltd. “It is uncertain how the virus outbreak will develop in China during the holidays. We are holding more cash and we are avoiding travel-related stocks and some technology stocks that had already jumped a lot earlier.”

Vulnerable currencies

“The sell-off in Asian currencies was triggered by the offshore yuan move, which in turn could be due to concerns over the outbreak of coronavirus,” says Khoon Goh, head of Asia research at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group in Singapore. “Given the recent strengthening in the yuan and the upcoming long Lunar New Year holiday, some profit taking and squaring up of positions also added to the move.”

“The bigger concern would actually be if it starts to spread to other Asian countries. If it is serious enough to impact tourism, then other currencies in the region will be more vulnerable.”

Placing bets

“Right now, it’s just people placing bets either way — which makes sense in a market like the one we’ve seen in the past couple of months with mostly short-sighted money chasing returns based on this thematic play or that,” said Chen Yicong, fund manager at Beijing Chengyang AMC Ltd. “When the virus hits, its normal for them to be quickly flowing in and out of the sectors. However I’m not placing any bets this time, though there are some areas that seem relatively unrelated to the outbreak that I may consider buying, like energy or real estate.”

Defensive Positioning
“Once you start hearing that the coronavirus is spreading, investors do cover their short positions and the risk in the near-term is for Treasuries to test 1.7%,” said Prashant Newnaha, senior strategist at TD Securities in Singapore. “We are also heading into a holiday period with flows thinning, so investors are positioning defensively — you’re seeing it in not only the moves with Treasuries but dollar-yen trading under 110 again.”

Panic selling

Not all attributed the selling to the virus.

“I don’t think the virus news is related,” said Jun Kato, chief market analyst at Shinkin Asset Management in Tokyo. It may weigh on sentiment but it’s not yet at a stage where it threatens to undermine the economy.”

“There were indications that Chinese stocks would fall at the open, and given that stocks have been rallying to strongly, there may have been moves to take profits and reduce positions now amid a lack of particularly bad news before re-entering. And that selling might have sparked panic selling from others who were looking to sell and magnified the drop unexpectedly.”

Underpriced risks

Financial markets are underpricing the potential for the new strain of coronavirus from China to spread across multiple countries in Asia, said Margaret Yang, strategist at CMC Markets in Singapore.

“Safe-haven and defensive sectors might outperform the riskier assets in the days to come, with gold, yen, palladium, US dollar, health-care stocks in a more favourable position against the disease crisis,” she wrote in a research note.


© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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