Airlines, carmakers and beer companies warn of tough times as coronavirus spreads

Ben Butler
Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Airlines, carmakers and beer companies are among the businesses warning of tough times ahead as the financial impact of the coronavirus outbreak spreads through the economy.

Australia’s benchmark stock exchange index, the ASX200, fell on Thursday for the fourth day running, slipping 0.75% after overseas markets that had been set to rally were gripped by virus panic on Wednesday afternoon.

Air New Zealand cut more routes into Asia, following the lead set by Qantas last week, and warned the outbreak would cut profit by up to $100m.

Travel agency Flight Centre also slashed its profit forecast, telling the market earnings would be $50m less because companies have banned their workers from travelling to China and tourists have started reconsidering their holiday plans.

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Business across Asia – and the world – has started to feel the impact as supply chains that are heavily dependent on Chinese industry freeze up and spooked consumers stop spending on anything but essentials.

Car sales will be down 2.5% this year, ratings agency Moody’s predicted, following on from a 4.6% drop last year.

The agency had been predicting the industry’s sales decline would slow to 0.9%, but changed its forecast on Thursday due to weaker demand and disrupted supply chains caused by the virus.

It said sales of cars in China would fall 2.9% – far worse than the growth of 1% it had previously predicted – because “cautious consumers are steering clear of crowded areas, including auto dealerships, while corporate demand for vehicles is weakening as broader economic uncertainties cause companies to scale back capital spending”.

The coronavirus outbreak has even hurt beer sales, according to Hong Kong-listed Budweiser Brewing Company APAC, which controls several beer brands popular in China.

It said it was forced to temporarily close breweries in China due to the crisis and expected sales to fall US$285m in the first two months of the year.

“We have observed almost no activity in the nightlife channel and very limited activity in restaurants,” the company said.

“To a lesser extent, we have also observed a meaningful decline in in-home channel (eg modern trade, traditional trade), with the exception of e-commerce, which has accelerated its growth significantly.”

Big miners BHP and Rio Tinto have also warned that the coronavirus outbreak could hurt their operations. Both are heavily dependent on Chinese steel mills as customers for their iron ore.

Australia’s tourism and education sectors have already been hit hard by travel bans, which have prevented Chinese tour groups from visiting and stopped students enrolling in classes.

More broadly, analysts warn that if the virus continues to cause disruption it could slow global economic growth.

“While most analysts had previously focused on the potential indirect negative impact on the global economy as a result of the coronavirus-induced Chinese growth slowdown, now the attention has turned to the direct economic impact on individual economies from localised outbreaks due to potential work stoppages, a decline in sentiment and travel restrictions,” ratings agency Fitch said.

“From a growth perspective, the combination of a sharp slowdown in China and localised outbreaks could weigh heavily on economic activity of these countries and hence our global growth forecast of 2.6% for 2020.

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“We have already revised down several growth forecasts across Asia (including South Korea), and we see more countries at risk.”

In the Australian market, the week’s losses have carved 6.3%, or more than $120bn, from the value of the ASX200.

While falls have been hardest in areas directly exposed to the Chinese economy, such as travel, resources and education, the pain has been felt across the board.

Stocks taking a thumping over the week have included all four of the big banks, as well as two smaller troubled finance groups, AMP and IOOF.

The week has also taken a toll on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Since last Thursday it has shed 15% of its value, or $3.40, to close on Thursday at $19.06.

It has no direct exposure to the Chinese economy but over the past fortnight competitors Seven West Media and Nine Entertainment have unveiled half-year results that paint a grim picture of the Australian media sector.