Hong Kong’s key stock index made its worst opening since 2016 on the first trading day of the Year of the Rat, as traders ran for cover after a two-day pause amid a worsening coronavirus outbreak.
The Hang Seng Index opened at 27,101, or 3 per cent below its close on January 24, the final trading day of the Year of the Pig. It finished Wednesday at 27,160.63, down 2.8 per cent. That makes it its worst opening since the Year of the Monkey in 2016, when the market opened 3.8 per cent lower.
Retail and airlines stocks were the biggest losers. Cosmetics retailer Sa Sa International Holdings dropped 9.1 per cent, while Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group plunged 8.1 per cent, China Eastern Airlines fell 3.4 per cent and Cathay Pacific Airways moved 3.2 per cent lower.
Macau casino operators that relied heavily on mainland tourists’ spending also tumbled. Galaxy Entertainment Group fell 5.2 per cent while Sands China dropped 5.6 per cent.
Pharmaceutical stocks and some new-economy firms had a good day. China Health Group rose 280 per cent while Hong Kong Television Network ended the day 13.7 per cent higher and internet giant Tencent jumped 0.7 per cent against a falling market.
Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEX), the city’s bourse operator, cancelled a public ceremony for the first time in two decades to mark the first trading day of the new lunar year, to prevent crowds from gathering in a closed space, at a time when eight cases of the Wuhan coronavirus have been confirmed in the city.
It is deemed a “black debut” when the index ends the first day with a loss, traders said, an omen that bodes ill for the market for the rest of the year.
“The Wuhan coronavirus has been spreading around the world. It will affect market sentiment in the near term, as the disease will affect the tourism and retail industries of Hong Kong,” said Jeffrey Chan Lap-tak, founding partner of Oriental Patron Financial Group. “These sectors have already been hit hard by the eight-month-long anti-government protests.”
Chinese authorities said that the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak had surpassed 130, with new cases bringing the tally beyond 6,000.
As a result, some banks and companies in Hong Kong have taken precautions to help contain the outbreak, joining the government in asking most of their staff to work from home.
HKEX scrapped the customary opening ceremony for brokers and media, only keeping the traditional lion dance performance for its in-house staff. It is the first time in the bourse’s two-decade history that it has not staged a public ceremony to mark the first trading day of the new year.
Wednesday’s black debut was the fifth in a row for the Hong Kong market. The Hang Seng Index fell 0.2 per cent on its first trading day of the Year of the Pig in 2019. It declined 0.8 per cent in the Year of the Dog in 2018, lost 0.2 per cent in the Year of the Rooster in 2017 and slipped 3.8 per cent in the Year of the Monkey in 2016. Recent Years of the Rat also do not provide much encouragement for investors. In 1996, the benchmark index ended the first day with a 2.2 per cent setback on concerns about interest-rate increases. In 2008, it crashed 3.6 per cent, or 853 points, on debut, before the onset of the global financial crisis.
The Year of the Rat, however, holds more promise on a full-year basis, with the exception of 2008 when the market dropped 46.4 per cent as investors panicked after the global financial crisis began to spread. The Hang Seng Index recorded a 221 per cent gain in 1972, 29.5 per cent in 1984 and 17.8 per cent in 1996. The benchmark was introduced in 1969.
During the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic – to which comparisons are being drawn with the current outbreak – the benchmark fell 12 per cent the two months to end-March, at the height of the epidemic. The index rose 1 per cent on May 2, 2003 when the disease came under better control.
Notably, the Hong Kong market was not suspended during Sars either.
The mainland Chinese markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen have delayed their opening to Monday, February 3, instead of January 31, Friday, in tandem with an extended Lunar New Year public holiday ordered by China’s State Council.
The mainland markets were also closed during the Sars outbreak, after the China Securities Regulatory Commission extended the May Day public holiday until May 12, thus shortening trading by four days.