US gains stop markets freefall but virus fears remain

By Simon Neville, PA City Editor

Traders in Europe started the day in the same spirits as they had the rest of the week – selling over concerns that Covid-19 was turning into a pandemic, with cases confirmed across the continent.

But once the Americans woke up, they helped drag Europe back into the black, ending the day on a positive note.

On the FTSE 100, the index dipped below 7,000 points for the first time in more than a year, but by the close it was up 24.59 points, or 0.35%, compared with the start of the day at 7,042.47.

Neil Wilson, chief market analyst at, said: “US equity markets are facing this coronavirus like buffalo, with their heads into the storm and marching onwards.

“The Dow and S&P 500 popped 1.5%… dragging European equity markets back from the brink with their strength.

“The FTSE and Dax were pulled up by their bootstraps as Wall Street showed a resilience lacking in Europe earlier in the session.”

He suggested markets may be reacting because the coronavirus spread has grown in Europe but not in the US.

“In terms of stabilisation, I’m more interested in what the next down day looks like… Now we are testing the lows – the problem is that the fundamentals can shift so quickly from under us as the Covid-19 virus is so uncertain,” Mr Wilson added.

Elsewhere, the Dax closed down 0.1% and the Cac in France closed flat.

Economic news was thin on the ground, but there was a bumper edition of company announcements, with several using the day to reveal major job cuts and restructuring plans.

Several also gave updates on what impact the coronavirus is having on their businesses, including Diageo, which warned up to £200 million could be knocked from earnings as demand has plummeted across Asia.

Shares closed down 26.5p at 2,933.5p.

Airport cafe operator SSP said it too was feeling the effects on business in the Far East, adding it expects to take a hit of around £10 million to £12 million.

Its shareholders took flight, sending shares down 29p, or 4.86%, at 568p.

But the big corporate news came with jobs as Virgin Money, Direct Line, Lloyds Bank, Ted Baker and the Restaurant Group all said they would be making potential cuts.

The Restaurant Group took the heaviest hit from investors, with shares closing down 8.5p, or 7.23%, at 109p.

Virgin Money closed down 1.85p at 164.75p and Lloyds closed down 0.1p at 51.91p.

But Ted Baker closed up 8.2p at 322.4p, with investors keen to see what acting chief executive Rachel Osborne has in store for the fashion brand.

Elsewhere, convenience retailer McColl’s swung to a loss and suspended its dividend for the past year after it was hit by a £98 million impairment charge.

Shareholders were unimpressed, sending shares down 6.6p, or 15.3%, to 36.5p.

And away from viruses and job losses, Taylor Wimpey shareholders sold up as the company said flat house prices and surging costs had hit profits. Shares closed down 6.6p at 212.4p.

The biggest risers on the FTSE 100 were NMC Health, up 58.2p to 938.4p, Evraz, up 16.9p to 376.6p, Smurfit Kappa, up 94p to 2,742p, HSBC, up 15.3p to 555p, and Ocado, up 26.5p to 1,121.5p.

The biggest fallers on the FTSE 100 were Taylor Wimpey, down 6.6p to 212.4p, Whitbread, down 131p to 4,225p, Informa, down 21p to 723p, JD Sports, down 21.4p to 783.8p, and Carnival, down 69p to 2,570p.