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FTSE 100 closes at lowest since 2016 as coronavirus fears hit markets

Stock markets around the world fell sharply on Friday, while Germany’s flagship airline said it would cut up to half its flights and oil prices plunged.

As a rising numbers of companies sound the alarm on the hit to profits, impose travel bans and put in place contingency plans to protect staff, the FTSE 100 plunged by 3.5% amid steep losses on stock markets elsewhere across Europe.
The leading index of UK company shares dropped by 234 points to 6,471, the lowest point since late June 2016 immediately after the EU referendum, with airlines and travel firms among the hardest hit as heavy selling pressure returned to markets around the world.

Lufthansa said it planned to cut as many as half of its flights in the coming weeks because of the fallout from coronavirus, just days after announcing a 20% reduction. The plan includes potentially grounding the carrier’s entire fleet of A380 superjumbos.

“In recent days, the Lufthansa Group has been exposed to drastic declines in bookings and numerous flight cancellations due to the spread of the Covid-19 virus. All traffic areas are now affected,” it said in a statement.

The airline industry has warned it faces revenue losses of $113bn (£87bn) in the event of a prolonged outbreak. Shares in budget airline Norwegian also plunged on concerns over its finances.

Wall Street was also hit with the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling by 256.23 points, or 0.98%, to 25,865.05 on Friday. However, the index closed the week higher for the first time in three weeks, and saw the biggest weekly percentage gain for four.

The world’s largest economy reported a boom in jobs growth in February. Although usually a reflection of economic strength, the jobs figures were compiled in the middle of last month, before US companies and investors had begun to really worry about the coronavirus outbreak’s impact on the US economy.

As investors offloaded shares in riskier assets, surging demand for safe havens pushed the yield on benchmark government bonds to new record lows – where a lower yield means a higher price. The UK 10-year gilt yield fell as low as 0.206% in afternoon trading, having started the day at 0.33%.

The price of oil plunged by about 8% to $46 a barrel after the Opec group of oil-rich nations failed to reach an agreement to cut production, seen as vital to support the price as global energy demand slides. In a reflection of the growing pressure on the world economy, factory closures and weaker trade volumes have sapped demand.

Chris Iggo of the fund manager Axa Investment Managers said: “The retrenchment of normal business activity is creating victims as well as generating extreme moves in financial markets. We probably won’t quickly return to business as usual.”
Markets had rallied earlier this week as finance ministers and central bankers in the G7 group of rich nations promised a coordinated response to the outbreak, while the US Federal Reserve issued an emergency interest rate cut to support households and firms through the worst of the disruption.

However, analysts have warned that central banks lack adequate firepower to respond to the economic fallout triggered by efforts to contain the disease, with interest rates in most advanced nations remain close to the lowest levels on record following a slow decade of economic recovery since the financial crisis.

Escalation of quarantine measures are expected to hit retail, with travel and tourism firms also reporting weaker bookings.

Companies around the world have also started to take tougher steps to contain the spread of the disease, against a backdrop of rising global concern as the number of infections passed 100,000.

Facebook closed its London offices and told staff to work from home after an employee was diagnosed with Covid-19, Sky News reported. The staff member is normally based in Singapore but visited the London office from 24-26 February.

Jaguar Land Rover warned it had suffered an 85% drop in sales in China last month as the coronavirus kept buyers indoors and most dealerships shut.