Stocks fell and oil prices plunged more than 10 per cent on Friday as the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant rattled global markets.
Asian markets led the way, with Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index dropping 2.7 per cent, while Japan’s Nikkei 225 was down 2.5 per cent. European markets also sold off heavily, with major indexes including the FTSE100, France’s CAC40 and Germany’s DAX falling between 3 per cent and 4 per cent.
US markets, which were closed Thursday for Thanksgiving, were also slammed during Friday’s shortened trading session. Dow futures fell more than 900 points, or about 2.5 per cent. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq were down nearly 2 per cent.
US oil futures sank by more than 11 per cent to trade below US$70 ($98.15) a barrel. Brent crude, the global oil benchmark, suffered a similar drop to around US$73 ($102).
South Africa’s health minister said Thursday that a new coronavirus variant appears to be spreading rapidly in parts of the country. It has also been detected in Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium.
UK Health Minister Sajid Javid said the variant “may be more transmissible” than the Delta strain and that “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective”.
The new strain has already prompted the UK government to ban flights from six African countries. Some EU countries are taking similar measures.
Investors were “spooked” by the discovery of the new COVID-19 variant, Jeffrey Halley, senior market analyst for Asia Pacific at Oanda, said in a research note on Friday.
Economists were already nervously watching a spike in COVID-19 infections in Europe. Some countries have introduced new restrictions to contain the spread, raising the prospect of reduced activity this winter at a time when inflation and supply chain woes are already clouding the outlook for growth.
Germany reported 76,414 cases on Friday, a new record for a single day. The country’s acting health minister, Jens Spahn, told reporters that the COVID-19 situation in Europe’s biggest economy was “more serious than at any other time in the pandemic so far” and he warned of “drastic measures in the coming weeks” if decisive action is not taken now to reduce contact between people.
“Beyond the current wave of infections in core Europe, a new variant of the … virus that is spreading rapidly in South Africa is causing serious concerns,” commented economists at Berenberg bank in a note on Friday.
“If Germany were to impose a national lockdown, we would likely have to downgrade our forecasts for German and eurozone GDP for Q4 slightly further,” they added.
Travel and airline stocks are among the biggest fallers Friday.
“With the delta wave in mind from earlier this year, investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known about it,” Halley said.