LONDON – Deepening fears for the health of the global economy pushed world stocks to three-week lows on Friday after China exports contracted by a fifth, sending shares in some of the country’s key indexes more than 4 percent lower.
The February data out of Beijing came in well below expectations of a 4.8 percent drop and worsened the already brittle mood on world markets, after European Central Bank slashed growth forecasts and unveiled a new round of policy stimulus on Thursday.
While the timing of the Lunar New Year made it difficult to draw a true signal from the China data noise, the scale of the drop was alarming, especially when coupled with somber new data from Germany and Norway.
The data knocked Chinese stocks off the 20-month highs hit earlier in the week, with mainland equity indexes plunging more than 4 percent in their worst day in five months. Japan’s Nikkei. closed 2 percent lower.
The dark mood spilled into European stock markets where the STOXX 600 index slipped 0.7 percent, poised for the first weekly drop in a month.
“The trade data from China is a big part of it,” said Fiera Capital’s co-chief Investment Officer Julian Mayo.
“Our own view is that the Chinese economy is slower than people generally think, but I think the world economy is probably slower than people think. So you put those two together and it is not surprising that the trade data was weaker than expected.”
European auto and financial stocks were at the forefront, both sectors slipping nearly 2 percent. A surprise decline in German industrial orders added concerns over the health of China’s economy, while financials nursed losses for a second day after the European Central Bank cut its growth forecasts and pushed out an interest rate hike.
ECB President Mario Draghi said the economy was in “a period of continued weakness and pervasive uncertainty” as he pushed out a planned rate hike and instead offered banks a new round of cheap loans.
MSCI’s 47-country benchmark world index dropped for a fifth straight session- its longest losing streak since December’s rout. The pressure looked to continue on Wall Street, with S&P 500 E-Mini futures easing 0.4 percent.
Yet the cocktail of growth woes and dovish central banks proved a boon for bonds. Germany’s benchmark 10-year bond yield took a step closer to zero percent and both German and French benchmark yields were at their lowest level since 2016- the year that saw the ECB ramp up stimulus and cut rates to fight deflation and weak economic growth.
“The ECB has had a bullish impact on bond markets and that is set to continue,” said Ciaran O’Hagan, rates strategist at Societe Generale in Paris. “We were not expecting something so clear, so soon, and markets were not either, so bond yields are likely to stay low for longer.”
U.S. 10-year Treasury yields touched a fresh two week low 2.627 percent.
On currency markets, the euro inched up to $1.1216 after tumbling 1 percent on Thursday to touch $1.1176- its lowest since June 2017.
The dollar weakened 0.2 percent after reaching a new 2019 high against a basket of currencies that includes the euro as traders bet the United States would fare better than Europe in the coming months, despite some soft patches in the U.S. economy.
Investors will be scouring U.S. payrolls data for February due out later in the day, with analysts uncertain how much payback there might be for January’s outsized jump. There was also a chance the jobless rate could fall by more than forecast, given the recent strength in employment.
In commodity markets, oil prices eased as U.S. crude output and exports climbed to record highs, undermining efforts by producer club OPEC to tighten global markets.
Oil futures fell around $1 with U.S. crude at $55.75 a barrel, while Brent crude fell to $65.14.
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