Via Financial Times

US Food and Drug Administration loosens rules on coronavirus testing

Hannah Kuchler reports from New York

The US Food and Drug Administration is loosening rules around who can oversee the development of coronavirus tests, as it tries to rapidly expand access to the diagnostics.

The regulator said on Monday that states may now take responsibility for tests developed in their state public health labarotories. The FDA also said that all commercial labs – not just the high complexity ones – would be able to distribute tests before gaining an emergency use authorisation.

Stephen Hahn, FDA commissioner, said these measures would help “a surge to meet the demand we expect to see”, though he admitted that it was hard to quantify what that could be and that there was still pressure in the supply chain to provide materials for tests.

Laboratories will also be able to develop serotological tests that check for antibodies to the virus, which are simpler but less accurate, as long as they are distributed with a warning that says they will not be the only tool used for diagnosis.

Such tests can be useful to track the spread of a disease in a community, especially on people who are barely symptomatic.

America’s biggest banks begin tapping Fed discount window for funding

Laura Noonan reports from New York

Eight of America’s biggest banks have begun tapping the Federal Reserve’s discount window for funding, their industry group said on Monday night, in a move that reactivates a lending facility largely dormant since the financial crisis.

Bank of America, Bank of New York Mellon, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, State Street, and Wells Fargo have all used the discount window, the Financial Services Forum said.

“While Forum member institutions individually have substantial liquidity and multiple sources of funding, they believe it is important to lead by demonstrating the value of the Federal Reserve’s discount window facility and to encourage its use by other financial institutions,” the FSF said.

JPMorgan Chase, which last month said it would likely use the discount window to remove its stigma, said drawing on it was a “symbolic transaction” that “demonstrates that this liquidity and cash management tool is an important part of the financial system”.

The Federal Reserve has been actively encouraging banks to use the discount window for borrowing, and on Sunday night lowered the amount it charges banks.

The news came at the end of a brutal day for Wall Street’s banks, when several of them lost more than 15 per cent of their market value, as investors digested the impact of a 100 basis point cut to the Fed’s key interest rate, as well as the impact of the escalating coronavirus pandemic.

Monthly survey shows plunge in Japanese business confidence

Leo Lewis reports from Tokyo

A monthly survey of Japanese business confidence conducted by Reuters showed the severe plunge that analysts had widely expected – a drop to decade lows as manufacturers and non-manufacturers across multiple sectors turned pessimistic about business conditions.

The sentiment index at manufacturers, reported Reuters, fell to minus 20 in March from minus 5 in the previous month, indicating the increasing degree to which pessimists now outnumber optimists. The service-sector gauge dropped 25 points to minus 10.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak dominated the news, Japan’s economy was beginning to look shaky, with GDP in the final quarter of 2019 hit by the combination of a controversial sales tax hike last October and the US-China trade war.

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The Reuters Tankan survey, which in this case drew on responses from 242 non-financial Japanese firms, is treated by some investors as an indicator of what the Bank of Japan’s closely-watched quarterly Tankan survey will show when it is released on April 1.

In their responses to the survey, reported Reuters, large Japanese companies cited fears of a sharp drop in sales and possible downward revisions to profits caused by the spread of the virus and its disruption to the economy.

China reports 21 new coronavirus cases as imported infections rise

Health authorities in China reported 21 new coronavirus cases to the end of Monday, 20 of which were in people who had returned from overseas. The new local case was in Wuhan. The mainland has now reported a total of 80,881 cases.

There were 13 new deaths in the country, taking the total to 3,226. The number of people discharged from hospital rose to 68,679.

S Korea mulls school shutdown extension as infection rate creeps higher

By Edward White

South Korea is expected to extend school closures as the number of new coronavirus cases crept higher on Tuesday, reversing several days of declines.

Education officials, who have already delayed the start of the school semester this month because of the virus, are expected to make the announcement this afternoon, according to state news agency Yonhap.

The precaution comes as the Korea Centers for Disease Control reported 84 new cases nationwide. That was higher than 74 cases reported on Monday but still well off the peak of 909 cases reported on February 29.

The trend of declining cases has drawn international praise and fuelled optimism that South Korea’s programme of mass testing and widespread social distancing is working to contain the virus.

However, although the number of daily cured patients continues to outpace new infections in recent days, officials have been concerned over new clusters breaking out following incidents at a call centre and a church over the past week.

Officials have also been worried about infections spreading from people arriving from foreign countries, as the global pandemic sweeps across Europe and the US.

The total case number in the country of 51m is now 8,320.

Honduras tells citizens to stay at home unless essential

Jude Webber reports from Mexico City

Honduras has imposed a seven-day state of exception, barring people from leaving their homes except to buy food, go to the bank or pharmacy, to travel to jobs deemed essential or to care for vulnerable, elderly or disabled people.

All public and private sector jobs, except those deemed essential – for example, in the health and energy sectors, petrol stations and restaurants offering take-out food – will be banned during the period. In addition, the decree halts public transport and seals Honduras’ borders. Shopping centres will be shut, public religious ceremonies banned and public events of all kinds, with any number of people, will not be allowed.

The Central American country has six confirmed coronavirus cases, including a pregnant woman and a baby. The government said there were three other suspected cases, including one 18-year-old migrant who had been deported from Mexico.

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To help meet the financial cost of battling coronavirus in one of the region’s poorest countries, the government agreed 2 per cent budget cuts from all government departments with the exception of health, education, energy, security and defence.

Qantas slashes international flight capacity by 90%

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

Qantas Airways is slashing international flight capacity by 90 per cent and domestic capacity by 60 per cent until the end of May due to the coronavirus crisis, the airline said on Tuesday.

The emergency measures represent the grounding of about 150 aircraft and will lead to a significant labour surplus across its workforce of 30,000 people, said Qantas in a statement.

The airline said it is working to manage the impact as much as possible through the use of paid and unpaid leave but warned the slump in travel demand would likely last months.

Australian airlines are in discussions with the government about support measures, including relief on government charges and access to stimulus funds.

Social media companies release joint statement on virus misinformation

Hannah Murphy in San Francisco

The largest social media companies have put out a first-of-its-kind joint statement saying that they are working together to fight fraud and misinformation related to coronavirus, as the groups battle to moderate their platforms amid a move towards more remote working.

Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube put out a statement on Monday saying they were “working closely together on COVID-19 response efforts” following growing reports of misleading information being shared about the virus.

“We’re helping millions of people stay connected while also jointly combating fraud and misinformation about the virus, elevating authoritative content on our platforms, and sharing critical updates in coordination with government healthcare agencies around the world. We invite other companies to join us as we work to keep our communities healthy and safe,” the statement said.

Groups such as Facebook and Twitter have in recent weeks created new policies designed to curb misinformation on the topic, after fake cures and false information about the origin of the virus began proliferating on public platforms as well as through private messaging.

Separately both Google’s YouTube and Twitter put out statements saying that they were shifting towards automating more of their content moderation process to reduce the need for people to come into the office.

YouTube said it was “temporarily increasing” its use of automation, while Twitter said that the increased automation of some of its enforcement calls “might result in some mistakes”.

Goldman Sachs confirms 2 further coronavirus cases

Laura Noonan reports from New York

Goldman Sachs confirmed two more US staff coronavirus cases on Monday night, as well as a “suspected” diagnosis for one of its medical providers at the bank’s New York head office.

The two employee cases are at Goldman’s tech hub in Salt Lake City, according to a memo sent to staff there. The staff members have not been in the office since March 12, and are now recovering at home, Goldman said.

The New York case involves an employee of Premise Health, which staffs the health centre at Goldman’s 200 West Headquarters in downtown Manhattan.

“Out of an abundance of caution, the health center will be closed on Monday, March 16 and will undergo an additional deep cleaning before reopening on Tuesday,” Goldman told staff based in New York and New Jersey.

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When the health centre re-opens, visiting staff will have to wear masks.

On Sunday, Goldman confirmed a case of coronavirus at its Sydney office, and another at its European headquarters in London.

Stock, bond and currency trading suspended in the Philippines

John Reed reports from Bangkok

The Philippines is shutting down stock, bond, and currency trading on Tuesday until further notice, becoming the first major financial market to close because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Philippine Stock Exchange announced the move in a statement late on Monday, and said it was in connection with President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to place all of Luzon island under an “enhanced community quarantine.”

Ramon Monzon, the PSE’s chief executive, said that the market would remain shut until further notice “to ensure the safety of employees and traders in light of the escalating cases of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).”

The Philippine market has been among those hit hardest in Asia by the global markets rout, down 32 per cent in the year to date. The country has reported 142 coronavirus cases to date, and 12 deaths.

New Zealand announces $7.3bn stimulus package

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

New Zealand unveiled a NZ$12.1bn ($7.3bn) stimulus package on Tuesday aimed at cushioning the blow to the economy caused by the coronavirus crisis.

The extra spending on health services, income support, wage subsidies for affected business and support for airlines is equivalent to 4 per cent of gross domestic product, which makes it on a per capita basis one of the largest stimulus packages unveiled globally.

“Our immediate goal is to support people and businesses as we weather the impact of Covid-19. We must then ready the economy to recover,” said Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister.

Australia’s stimulus package announced last week amounted to spending worth just under 1 per cent of GDP but is already considered too small. Canberra is due to announce a second stimulus package on Thursday.

Grant Robertson, New Zealand’s finance minister, said the stimulus package is not a one-off and the government would monitor the situation and adjust its response.

Asia stocks drop after US sell-off

Hudson Lockett reports from Hong Kong

Stocks in Japan took another leg down and equities in Australia were giving up early gains on Tuesday after the US stock market suffered its worst single-day drop since 1987, in the face of growing global lockdowns to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Tokyo’s Topix dropped 2.5 per cent shortly after the open, taking the benchmark index down more than 30 per cent for the year to date, while Sydney’s S&P/ASX 200 was up 1 per cent paring earlier gains after dropping 9.7 per cent on Monday.

Oil prices were wavering, with Brent crude, the international benchmark, down 0.4 per cent at $29.22 a barrel. US marker West Texas Intermediate rose 1.7 per cent at $29.19.

The S&P 500 index of US stocks closed 12 per cent lower on Monday, lurching lower in the final minutes of trading to mark the biggest one-day fall since the crash of October 1987. On Tuesday in Asian trading futures tipped the US stock benchmark to rise 0.9 per cent at the open on Wall Street.