March 23, 2020 / 1:29 AM / 11 days ago

Australian firms dump guidance as virus lockdown jolts markets

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian retailers, casinos and toll road operators pulled profit guidance on Monday as unprecedented curbs on public life to combat the coronavirus pandemic hit demand, sending their shares into a tailspin.

The benchmark index plunged more than 8% at the open as investors fretted over the damaging economic costs of stringent new social distancing rules.

Seeking to contain the pandemic, the government ordered the closure of indoor sporting venues, pubs and clubs, cafes & restaurants as well as gyms and cinemas.

Hotels, eating out, art and recreation, air travel and other services make up nearly 10% of Australia’s A$2 trillion ($1.1 trillion) economy.

The government on Sunday pledged A$66.4 billion to help affected business and individuals though economists say another support package will be needed.

“Increasing social distancing including the increasing adoption of alternative work arrangements – working from home – add further downside risk to activity,” said Su-Lin Ong, economist at RBC which is predicting Australia’s first recession in nearly three decades this year.

“The knock-on impact to the labour market is emerging and will be significant,” Ong added.

At least 14 companies urged the country’s stock exchange to halt trading in their shares to shelter them from the extreme volatility in the share market.

Australia’s main 200-share index has dropped more than 20% over the last two weeks as worries about the pandemic and its impact on the global economy wreaked havoc in financial markets.

Losses on Monday were led by the heavyweight financial index .AXFJ which crashed almost 8% to touch its lowest in almost nine years.

The number of coronavirus cases in Australia has surpassed 1,000 with the two most populous states of Victoria and New South Wales (NSW) recording the most infections. Globally, the pandemic has killed over 14,000 and infected well over 300,000 in a crippling blow to economic activity and daily life.

Analysts are expecting mortgage defaults to rise at the country’s biggest lenders - Commonwealth Bank (CBA.AX), Westpac (WBC.AX), National Australia Bank (NAB.AX) and ANZ Banking Group (ANZ.AX) as the unemployment rate starts to creep higher.

Other sectors were hammered too.

Toll road operator Atlas Arteria (ALX.AX) suspended its first-half guidance and delayed dividend distribution. Shares in the company pummeled 32% and was among the top loser on the benchmark index.

JB Hifi’s (JBH.AX) stock also took a pounding after the retailer withdrew its current financial year sales and earnings guidance citing “an increasing level of uncertainty” arising from COVID-19.

SkyCity Entertainment Group (SKC.NZ) said it would shut its casino in Adelaide in line with an Australian government order and withdrew its full-year earnings forecast.

Reporting by Renju Jose and Swati Pandey; Editing by Shri Navaratnam

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