Stocks – Europe Lower; Rise in Virus Numbers Weigh

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By Peter Nurse – European stock markets pushed lower Thursday, as a jump in the number of people recorded as being affected by the coronavirus in China prompted a rush to safe havens. This comes as the corporate earnings session enters full flow.

At 03:35 ET (0835 GMT), the U.K.’s index was trading 67 points, or 0.9%, lower, France’s was down 12 points, or 0.2%, while the lost 55 points, or 0.4%. The index, which represents a broad swathe of companies across 17 countries in Europe, traded 0.4% lower, having hit a new record high Wednesday.

China’s Hubei province, where the virus is believed to have originated, reported 242 new deaths late Wednesday, double the previous day’s toll, and confirmed 14,840 new cases.

The rise in the number of Hubei cases, which came as officials adopted a new methodology for counting infections, is a ninefold increase from a day earlier.

The new methodology effectively lowers the bar for classifying new infections, contributing to the spike in cases, but this dent to sentiment was enough to present a selling opportunity after several days of gains.

That said, there has been a surge in earnings reports in Europe early Thursday, and these are likely to attract most of the attention.

Shares in Barclays (LON:) dropped over 2% despite the U.K. bank raising its dividend after a strong fourth quarter and issuing an outlook free of the burdens of payment protection insurance. This news was overshadowed by the announcement of a probe by the Financial Conduct Authority into the relationship between CEO Jes Staley and the late sex offender Jeffery Epstein.

Shares in Credit Suisse (SIX:) dropped 2% despite posting a 69% rise in annual net profit on Thursday, its best numbers since 2010, just as Chief Executive Tidjane Thiam bids farewell to the Swiss banking giant.

It’s Commerzbank (DE:) that takes the plaudits from investors Thursday, as its shares climbed over 4% despite the German bank swinging to a net loss for the final quarter of 2019 as it booked a restructuring charge related to planned job cuts at the lender. It also lowered its dividend for the year, but these weak figures were still better than expected.

Away from the banking sector, shares in Pernod Ricard (PA:) climbed 2.5% after the French premium spirits maker reported higher net profit and sales for the first half of its fiscal year. Still, it was forced to slash its full-year guidance, expecting the coronavirus outbreak to have a severe impact on its third fiscal quarter.

Shares in Nestle (SIX:)fe ll 2% after delaying a key growth target as chief executive Mark Schneider pushes to achieve a turnround at the world’s largest food company. The Swiss food giant also discarded its range of chocolate that used a new low-sugar technique, less than two years after it was launched.

In some positive economic news, French unemployment fell unexpectedly in the final three months of last year to 8.1%, an 11-year low, from 8.5% in the third quarter, offering President Emmanuel Macron a boost on the economic front. But the hefty fall of German inflation on a monthly basis shows how far the European Central Bank has to go to try and get inflation in the eurozone back to target.

Elsewhere, the oil market sold off after the International Energy Agency slashed 365,000 barrels a day from its forecast for world oil demand this year due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Gold pushed higher. The U.S. dollar also saw gains, particularly against the euro, with the greenback profiting from safe haven inflows from emerging currencies and the euro.

AT 04:30 AM ET (0930 GMT), futures traded 0.7% lower at $50.77 a barrel and the international benchmark contract fell 1.2% to $55.14. Additionally, rose 0.4% to $1,577.55/oz while traded at 1.0885, only just off an overnight low of $1.0865, which marked its lowest level since May 2017.

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