March 23, 2020 / 6:53 AM / 11 days ago

Australia shares end at over 7-year low on recession fears; NZ slumps

* Australia, NZ advise against domestic travel

* No. 2 bank Westpac hits over 17-year low

* NZ benchmark ends at lowest since May 2018

* NZ’s Fisher & Paykel Healthcare designated essential service (Updates to close)

March 23 (Reuters) - Australian shares slumped to their lowest close in more than seven years on Monday as widespread curbs on travel and public life fed recession fears, overshadowing policy efforts against the coronavirus pandemic.

Further fuelling growth concerns, Australian companies ranging from retailers to casinos and toll road operators dumped their earnings outlook, hurt by the sweeping restrictions aimed at arresting the rapid spread of the virus.

The S&P/ASX 200 index fell 5.6% to finish at 4,546.00, its lowest close since December 2012. The index had plumbed losses as much as 8.6% earlier in the session.

“Social distancing, travel bans, event cancellations and shutdowns of non-essential services will mean that the hit to demand cannot be offset by monetary and fiscal stimulus,” ANZ Research said in a note.

Australia on Sunday ordered pubs, cinemas, churches and casinos to close, while the government pledged an extra A$66.4 billion ($38.50 billion) to shield the economy, its second fiscal stimulus package in a week.

Airlines flagged potential capacity cuts and cancelled more flights after Australia and New Zealand warned against non-essential domestic travel.

Heavyweight financials stocks lost 10.2%, with the “Big Four” banks losing between 9% and 12%.

Top lender Commonwealth Bank of Australia finished at its lowest since September 2012, while Westpac Banking Corp slumped to a more than 17-year low.

Retail conglomerate Wesfarmers Ltd declined 6.8% and electronics retailer JB Hi-Fi plunged 10.8% after withdrawing outlook.

Among mining stocks, iron ore miners Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals Group shed 4% and 7.7%, respectively.

Bucking the trend, heavyweight biotech firm CSL Ltd ended 4.2% higher, while Sonic Healthcare gained 6.3%.

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index ended 7.6% lower to finish at 8,498.70, its lowest close since May 2018. Earlier, the index marked its worst intraday drop, losing up to 10.7%.

The country will be moving to its highest alert level, imposing self-isolation, with all-non-essential services, schools and offices to be shut over the next 48 hours.

Auckland International Airport slumped 7.4%, while SkyCity Entertainment plunged 14.5% after it said it would shut its casino in Adelaide.

Meanwhile, Fisher & Paykel Healthcare added 2.3% after it was designated an essential service by the government, and said it will continue its operations in Auckland. (Reporting by Sameer Manekar in Bengaluru; Editing by Devika Syamnath)

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