Oil prices rallied Thursday, helping boost equity markets, on fresh tensions between the US and Iran, but investors continued to fret over the uncertain economic outlook despite the coronavirus pandemic showing signs of slowing.

With devastation wrought on economies around the world, some governments are turning their attention to easing tough restrictions that have been imposed on billions of people over the past weeks.

But observers say the route out of the crisis remains uncertain, while the head of the World Health Organization warned the end was still a long way off.

Asian markets enjoyed a welcome advance

Tokyo, Mumbai and Jakarta were all more than one percent higher, while Seoul added one percent and Hong Kong gained 0.5 percent.

Taipei, Singapore, Manila, Bangkok and Wellington were also higher, though Shanghai and Sydney both slipped slightly. London, Paris and Frankfurt were all up in early trade.

“Make no mistake: we have a long way to go. This virus will be with us for a long time,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual press conference.

Wall Street jumped Wednesday, tracking a surge in oil prices that saw WTI for June delivery jump 19 percent.

The commodity extended gains in Asian trade, with WTI climbing more than 14 percent at one point and Brent adding almost 12 percent before easing slightly.

The surge came after a tough week on oil markets, with WTI for May delivery crashing below $0.00.

Phillip Futures cited “heightened risk in the Middle East” after US President Donald Trump said on Twitter he had “instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea”.

Iran, meanwhile, said it put its first military satellite into orbit. Washington alleges the space programme is a cover to develop ballistic missiles.

The tensions offset news of another surge in US stockpiles, including at the Cushing, Oklahoma hub where analysts say there is little remaining space.

Phillip Futures, however, said the Trump tweet was likely a move to boost prices as US shale had been badly hit by the oil crisis.

With demand for the commodity almost non-existent and facilities close to full, expectations are for more volatility to come.

Global markets had been enjoying a healthy rally in recent weeks, thanks to trillions of dollars of stimulus and signs of slowing in the disease that had allowed leaders to consider easing lockdowns.

But the oil crisis and concerns about the length of the global economic recovery have brought dealers back to Earth following weeks of big gains.

Arduous road to recovery

“The broader market’s attention is now turning away from the trajectory of epidemiological curves and towards exit strategies,” said Stephen Innes at AxiCorp.

However, he pointed to China, which is emerging from months of lockdown but is struggling to kickstart the key consumer sector.

“The differential between the sharp recovery in factory activity and retail sales is glaring. While the factories are coming back online, it does not force people to buy things.

“Without a cure or a reliable treatment, the road to recovery could be longer and more arduous than initially thought, based on the China template.”

Stephen Innes at AxiCorp

In a sign of the battle ahead for governments, a gauge of Japan’s services sector on Thursday came in at a record low for April and pointed to a deep contraction, while a measure of factory activity dropped to its lowest since the financial crisis 11 years ago.

Data showed South Korea’s economy contracted 1.4 percent in January-February, its worst number since 2008, and in Germany a closely watched forward-looking index of consumer confidence came in at a record low for May.

“COVID-19 has decimated the global economy, and oil’s travails this week should have sapped the delusion confidence of even the most ardent V-shaped recovery desperado,” said OANDA’s Jeffrey Halley. 

“Will countries start to reopen? If they do, will a second wave of COVID-19 infections ensue? What will be the scale of permanent business closures after the dust settles?”

Eyes are on a meeting of EU leaders later in the day, where they will try to hammer out a plan to help their withered economies recover from the crisis.

But while members agree a huge stimulus is needed, they are split over the details — particularly on funding.

“It’s hard to overestimate the importance of (the) meeting… as it could define the post-COVID strategy of the alliance,” said Gorilla Trades strategist Ken Berman.

“Barring a coordinated response to the crisis, countries like Italy could face a full-blown banking crisis.”

Ahead of the meeting, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany was ready to pay into a “significantly higher” EU budget to help the bloc cope with the fallout.

Key figures from around 0810 GMT

West Texas Intermediate: UP 11.3 percent at $15.35 per barrel

Brent North Sea crude: UP 8.9 percent at $22.18 per barrel

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: UP 1.5 percent at 19,429.44 (close)

Hong Kong – Hang Seng: UP 0.4 percent at 23,977.32 (close)

Shanghai – Composite: DOWN 0.2 at 2,838.50 (close)

London – FTSE 100: UP 0.1 percent at 5,775.18  

Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.0800 from $1.0822 at 2100 GMT 

Dollar/yen: DOWN at 107.62 from 107.71 yen 

Pound/dollar: UP at $1.2325 from $1.2320 

Euro/pound: DOWN at 87.63 pence from 87.82 pence

New York – Dow: UP 2.0 percent at 23,475.82 (close)


© Agence France-Presse

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