Rand plummets, oil crashes as panic selling grips global markets

The rand slumped to its weakest level in almost five years after stock markets plunged around Asia on Monday, as panic selling set in with traders fretting over the economic impact of the new coronavirus and digesting a free-fall in the oil price.

By early morning on Monday, the rand was down more than 3% to R16.21/$ after reaching R16.97 earlier in the session. It was trading above R21 to a pound and against the euro it plunged by almost 5% to R18.44.

The benchmark Nikkei 225 index had dropped 5.10 percent or 1,058.06 points to 19,691.69, while the broader Topix index was off 5.01 percent or 73.69 points to 1,397.77 in early trading on Monday.

Other markets in the region were also suffering with Hong Kong stocks down 3.8 percent at the open, Australia off more than five percent and equities in New Zealand and South Korea both down by just under three percent.

In China, the benchmark Shanghai Composite Index dived 1.56 percent while the benchmark Philippine stock exchange index opened down nearly four percent.

Driving the declines was a ferocious sell-off in the oil markets sparked by top exporter Saudi Arabia slashing prices - in some cases to unprecedented levels - after a bust-up with Russia over oil production.

The two main oil contracts were both down about 30 percent in morning Asian trade, with Brent crude down to $32 a barrel.

Saudi Arabia launched an all-out oil war Sunday with the biggest cut in its prices in the last 20 years, Bloomberg News reported, after a failure by cartel OPEC and its allies to clinch a deal to cut production.

A meeting of main producers was expected to agree to deeper cuts to counter the impact of the new coronavirus - but Moscow refused to tighten supply.

In response, the Gulf powerhouse cut its price for April delivery by $4-6 a barrel to Asia and $7 to the United States, with Aramco selling its Arabian Light at an unprecedented $10.25 a barrel less than Brent to Europe, Bloomberg said.

The foreign exchange markets were also extremely volatile, with traders snapping up the yen - seen as a hedge against global instability - and selling off the dollar amid uncertainty over coronavirus in the United States.

Marito Ueda, senior trader at FX Prime, told AFP: "Fears over the virus's impact on the global economy and a plummet in US yields had investors seeking the safe-haven yen."

"It is essentially flight from the dollar," he added.

A stronger yen tends to push down Japanese stocks, and exporters from the world's third-top economy were especially hard-hit, with Nissan and Sony down more than five percent and Toyota down 3.60 percent.

Banks also plunged, with Sumitomo Mitsui Financial trading down nearly four percent and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial off by almost five percent.

Stephen Innes, chief market strategist at AxiCo, said the markets were suffering from a perfect storm of factors.

"The yen surged... at the market open this week as investors dove into safe havens on accelerating COVID-19 cases in Europe, and as Saudi Arabia triggers a price war for oil, adding another level of unwanted panic to a market already thick with fear," he said.

The dollar fetched 104.15 yen, after dipping to around 103.83 yen early on Monday, the lowest level since November 2016. That compares with 105.40 yen in New York late Friday.

Markets were not helped by data showing that the Japanese economy had declined more than initially thought - even before the outbreak of the coronavirus.

The country's gross domestic product during the October-December quarter was revised down to a contraction of 1.8 percent, compared to an earlier estimate of 1.6 percent.

"Unfortunately, any recovery in Q1 has been nipped in the bud by the global spread of the coronavirus," said Tom Learnmouth, Japan economist at Capital Economics.

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