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Coronavirus latest: Kim warns of pandemic and flood risks as Seoul weighs stricter rules

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Global stocks muted in face of mixed economic signals

Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong

Global stocks struggled for momentum due to uncertainty over new US stimulus measures and sluggish Chinese economic data.

Japan’s benchmark Topix index added 0.2 per cent in early trading on Friday while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng and China’s CSI 300 index of Shanghai and Shenzhen-listed stocks were little changed.

The muted atmosphere coincided with Chinese data for July that came in lower than analysts’ expectations, which could raise concerns over the velocity of the country’s economic recovery from Covid-19.

Retail sales dropped 1.1 per cent year on year — the seventh straight month of declines — versus a forecast 0.1 per cent rise.

Fixed asset investment — which includes spending on infrastructure and property — also fell 1.6 per cent in the first seven months of the year, defying economists’ predictions for a rebound.

Overnight on Wall Street, the S&P 500 ended 0.2 per cent lower, just shy of its record high, while the tech-focused Nasdaq finished up 0.3 per cent.

The pause for US stocks came as data showed that the number of people who filed for unemployment benefits over the prior week fell below 1m for the first time since the pandemic began. Economists had forecast jobless claims of about 1.1m.

Grants to help Ebola survivors grapple with Covid-19

The African Development Bank said on Thursday it would fund a $13.5m programme to help Ebola survivors and orphans in Sierra Leone who have been further affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The grants would go towards rebuilding water and sanitation facilities in villages ravaged by Ebola, a haemorrhagic fever with a high mortality rate.

“Affected communities have been further hit by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic devastation caused by resulting lockdowns,” the bank, based in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, said in a statement.

Nearly 4,000 people died in Sierra Leone’s 2014-2016 Ebola virus disease outbreak, according to World Health Organization data.

Kim Jong Un warns of challenges despite easing lockdown

Edward White in Wellington

Kim Jong Un has warned of the continued challenges facing North Korea from both coronavirus and recent severe flooding as he relaxed a lockdown in the border city of Kaesong.

Pyongyang in July declared a state of emergency in the city after a North Korean defector returned from South Korea — the move marked the first time the secretive state had acknowledged the global pandemic had potentially breached its borders.

The decision to lift the lockdown came at a top political meeting on Thursday, led by Mr Kim, according to state media.

“Our state faces two challenges: anti-epidemic work to thoroughly cope with the world public health crisis and unexpected sudden natural disaster … Our party and the government must set forth correct policy direction to overcome these two crises at the same time and display excellent leadership arts in the three-dimensional and offensive,” Korea Central News Agency quoted the dictator as saying.

Leading international North Korean watchers — including a US general, top Japanese officials and South Korean health experts — have made public their doubts over whether Pyongyang’s restrictions have been sufficient in stopping the spread of coronavirus into the country.

Highlighting the damage to the North Korean economy from the virus, a report from the US department of agriculture published this week suggested that almost 60 per cent of North Korea’s 25.8m people faced food insecurity, up from 57 per cent the year before.

Billionaire makes high-stakes bet on Sydney skyscraper

Jamie Smyth in Sydney

It will be one of Sydney’s tallest residential buildings with sweeping views of the world-famous harbour and opera house. It hosts a luxury hotel and a casino — and the penthouse can be yours for just A$100m (US$71.5m).

This is the marketing pitch for Crown Sydney, the A$2.2bn development from Crown Resorts that is due to open this year in the middle of a global pandemic and the worst economic crash in almost a century.

James Packer, an Australian billionaire and the largest shareholder in Crown, hired a gaggle of former MPs as lobbyists and fought a legal battle to overcome strong public opposition to the construction of the glass-clad tower, which he claims will give “back the spark” to the city where he was born.

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China retail sales fall for 7th straight month as recovery lags

Retail sales in China slumped in July for the seventh consecutive month, as lingering weakness in consumption continues to cast doubts over the country’s economic recovery.

Purchases of goods and services by consumers dropped 1.1 per cent in year on year in July compared with the same month last year. Economists had forecast that consumption would edge higher in July.

The new data reflect China’s two-track economic recovery, with its government-backed industrial sector supporting growth despite weakness in spending and a rise in household savings.

Industrial output rose 4.8 per cent in July compared with the same period last year.

In the second quarter, China’s economy returned to growth after a historic decline in gross domestic product earlier in the year.

However, retail sales fell 3.9 per cent over the three months to the end of June.

South Korea mulls return to stricter distancing after virus surge

Edward White and Kang Buseong

South Korea is weighing a return to stricter social distancing rules after new coronavirus cases in the country hit a four-month high on Friday.

Chung Sye-kyun, the prime minister, said officials are considering reimposing the measures in the sprawling capital of Seoul and neighbouring areas.

“If the situation gets worse, we have no choice but to consider ways to upgrade the social distancing [guidelines] to level 2 in Seoul metropolitan area,” said Mr Chung, who is leading the government’s response to the virus.

The potential move comes as the country of 52m reported 103 new cases on Friday. There were 85 locally transmitted cases, the highest one-day tally since late March, according to health officials.

South Korea has won international praise for use of a high-tech contact tracing system and mass testing in its handling of the pandemic, ultimately avoiding a nationwide lockdown.

But the latest spike in cases highlights the continued risk from infections, even in countries with efficient systems for monitoring and suppressing new outbreaks.

Also on Friday, the Korea Centers for Disease Control urged caution, particularly among Seoul’s 10m citizens, after outbreaks in retail chains, churches and markets.

US signs 2 deals to ramp up Covid-19 testing capacity

The US government said on Thursday it would invest $6.5m in two privately owned diagnostic laboratories to expand Covid-19 testing by another 4m tests each month.

The health and human services department said it had signed deals with Nashville-based Aegis Sciences and Austin-based Sonic Healthcare USA, an Australian-owned company.

“We are committed to leveraging every possible opportunity to expand the nation’s SARS-CoV-2 testing capacity over the next several months,” said Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health, referring to the virus that causes Covid-19.

NZ reports 13 new cases as Auckland cluster grows

New Zealand has reported 13 further coronavirus cases linked to a cluster discovered this week that ended more than three months with no local infections.

Ashley Bloomfield, director-general of health, said 12 of the new cases were linked to a family in Auckland, taking the cluster to 30. One case has been classified as “probable”. Their link to the outbreak is under investigation.

“I think we’re getting an increasingly good picture and we will have even more information this afternoon when the cabinet meets to make its decision [on further measures],” Dr Bloomfield said.

He said the index case, or first documented infection, was being investigated.

The country’s run of 100 days with no new locally transmitted coronavirus cases was broken this week when a family of four tested positive for the virus.

The discovery prompted a swift lockdown in Auckland and mass testing, pictured, in a bid to control the outbreak. New Zealand is one of few countries that has pursued a policy of eliminating the virus on its shores.

More than 15,000 tests were carried out on Thursday, the highest one-day tally since the pandemic began.

Chris Hipkins, health minister, asked only those with symptoms or who had potentially been in contact with confirmed cases to come forward for testing.

The country now has 48 active coronavirus cases. The new case listed as probable is the only patient admitted to hospital.

Baidu revenues extend fall into 2nd quarter

Ryan McMorrow in Beijing

Chinese search giant Baidu’s sales continued to shrink in the second quarter as China’s economic recovery failed to bring back advertisers.

The Beijing-based company’s reported revenue fell 1 per cent year on year to Rmb26bn ($3.8bn), ahead of the Rmb25.8bn forecast by analysts.

Still, it marks an improvement after China’s coronavirus lockdown caused the group’s first-quarter revenues to fall by 7 per cent. Net profits grew 48 per cent to Rmb3.6bn.

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US charges Nevada woman with $1m-plus Covid-19 fraud

US authorities on Thursday said they have charged a Nevada woman with fraudulently obtaining more than $1m in Paycheck Protection Program loans designed to help small businesses survive the coronavirus pandemic.

The justice department complaint alleges that Karen Chapon of Las Vegas made six fraudulent loan applications, and submitted fake and altered tax filings and company payroll records.

Ms Chapon claimed her company had paid $2.5m in wages but the Internal Revenue Service found no records.

The PPP allows qualifying small businesses to receive loans with a maturity of two years at an interest rate of 1 per cent. Businesses must use PPP loans only for payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent and utilities.

Victoria reports 372 new coronavirus cases

The Australian state of Victoria reported 372 new coronavirus cases on Friday morning, and 14 new deaths.

The state’s tally rose from 278 cases a day earlier, the lowest reported number of new infections in two weeks.

Victoria reimposed a lockdown on metropolitan Melbourne, pictured, in July but has struggled to slow the spread of the infection with its aged care facilities particularly badly hit by the virus.

Asia-Pacific equities pause ahead of China data

Asia-Pacific stocks had a sluggish start on Friday ahead of Chinese economic data and after Wall Street took a breather from a recent rally.

Japan’s Topix was down 0.2 per cent, the Kospi in South Korea dipped 0.5 per cent and Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 edged up 0.1 per cent. Futures tip the Hang Seng index to open 0.1 per cent lower.

China is set to release figures for fixed asset investment, industrial output and retail sales for July, giving pointers on the country’s recovery from the pandemic.

Overnight on Wall Street, the S&P ended 0.2 per cent lower, remaining short of a February record high.

That dip came despite news that weekly jobless claims came in below 1m for the first time since the pandemic took hold in the US.

ANZ analysts highlighted the jobless claims and the recent uptick in consumer and producer prices as signs of a recovery, but pointed to the need for more government support.

“While this points to some improvement in the economic recovery, the path ahead will be influenced heavily by what comes next on the fiscal stimulus side,” the analysts said.

US reports biggest daily jump in tests since July

Peter Wells in New York

The US reported its biggest daily jump in coronavirus tests in almost three weeks, potentially helping to ease recent concerns about a drop-off in testing at a time when new cases and deaths remain elevated.

More than 880,000 tests were conducted over the past 24 hours, according to the Covid Tracking Project, the most since July 24 and up from about 479,000 yesterday.

Most notably, Texas saw its daily number of tests bounce back from recent levels that had been at their lowest since June.

The low level of tests is one factor that has spurred a rise in the state’s positivity rate to a record 24.5 per cent on Wednesday, prompting governor Greg Abbott to launch an investigation into the data.

Mr Abbott said officials have observed in recent weeks that fewer residents have been coming forward to be tested compared to a month ago.

The US coronavirus death toll rose by 1,163, according to Covid Tracking Project, down from an increase yesterday of 1,503 that was the biggest jump in three months.

Nevada (34) was the only state to report a record daily increase in deaths, according to a Financial Times analysis of Covid Tracking Project data.

A further 51,705 people in the US tested positive for coronavirus over the past 24 hours, down from 56,035 on Wednesday. North Dakota (201) and Hawaii (354) were the only two states to report record daily jumps in infections.

Most events postponed in US collegiate sports season

The US National Collegiate Athletic Association announced on Thursday that it would postpone almost all events in its highest division, dealing a further blow to sports in the country.

NCAA president Mark Emmert said the Division I championships would not be held on schedule, affecting the FCS college football events as well as men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, women’s volleyball and men’s water polo.

The NCAA Division II and Division III had already cancelled their championships.

Mr Emmert said the NCAA is looking into rescheduling autumn events for winter or spring.

“We cannot now, at this point, have fall NCAA championships, because there’s not enough school participating,” Mr Emmert said.

The Division I Football Bowl Subdivision will go ahead as planned. “So we can’t [go ahead] in any Division I NCAA championship sport, which is everything other than FBS football, that goes on in the fall,” Mr Emmert said.

Gradual reopening of English theatres and arenas unveiled

George Parker in London

Boris Johnson has approved the gradual reopening of theatres, concert venues and sports arenas as the final sectors of the English economy still closed by Covid-19 were allowed to return to life.

Bowling alleys, skating rinks and casinos will be able to reopen from this weekend, while beauty salons, spas and barbers will be permitted to offer all “close-contact services and treatment”.

In a significant boost to the arts sector, indoor theatres, music and performance venues in England will be able to reopen with socially distanced audiences, following a successful series of pilots.

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Americans face higher mental stress during pandemic: survey

Americans have reported higher levels of mental health conditions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, a survey commissioned by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found.

Younger adults, minorities, essential workers and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced “disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use and elevated suicidal” thoughts.

“The public health response to the Covid-19 pandemic should increase intervention and prevention efforts to address associated mental health conditions,” the research team, led by Mark Czeisler of the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, concluded.

Symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the US during April to June compared with the same period in 2019, researchers said. “Suicidal ideation” was more prevalent among males, while symptoms of anxiety or depression were most common in people aged 18-24.

Overall, 40.9 per cent of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioural health condition, according to the survey, released on Thursday.

CDC commissioned the Utah-based data company Qualtrics to conduct the survey, which was reviewed and approved by the Human Research Ethics Committee at Monash. More than 5,400 US adults completed web-based surveys.

Travellers from France added to UK quarantine list

George Parker in London

Boris Johnson on Thursday night dealt a blow to the holiday plans of hundreds of thousands of Britons when he ordered that France be added to Britain’s quarantine list from Saturday.

The move is expected to trigger a stampede by British holidaymakers in France for Channel ports and Eurostar services before the new quarantine restrictions take effect at 4am on Saturday.

Travellers arriving from the Netherlands, Monaco, Turks & Caicos and Aruba will also have to self-isolate for 14 days, in a move announced by Downing Street just before 10pm on Thursday.

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Jakarta Shangri-La Hotel shuts restaurant

The luxury Shangri-La Hotel Jakarta said on Thursday it had shut down its restaurant after city officials found violations of Covid-19 protocols.

Agents from Parekraf, Jakarta’s tourism and creative economy agency, visited the hotel on August 8, after it received complaints about violations of Jakarta’s Large Scale Social Restrictions, known as PSBB.

“There are PSBB violations, such as live music and there is a display of alcoholic drinks, which means they are selling,” Parekraf director Bambang Asmadi said earlier this week.

The hotel said on Thursday that the restaurant was closed temporarily after Parekraf sent a list of compliance requirements.

“The rest of the hotel is functioning as normal, and in accordance with the guidelines set forth by the Indonesian government,” a spokesperson said.

Covid-19 news you might have missed

New applications for US unemployment benefits fell below 1m for the first time since the start of the pandemic, although the pace of claims eased for a second straight week as businesses slowly emerged from the coronavirus restrictions. Initial jobless claims totalled 963,000 on a seasonally adjusted basis last week, compared with 1.19m a week earlier.

US stocks ended the day mixed with the S&P 500 falling 0.2 per cent, pressured by losses in energy and the defensive real estate sector. The index briefly rose above the record closing high it set in February. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite fared better, gaining 0.3 per cent. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 0.3 per cent.

Mexico’s central bank has lowered its benchmark interest rate by 50 basis points, bringing it down to 4.5 per cent, after the country’s economy recorded its fifth straight quarter of contraction. The bank said that the global economy, after the sharp falls registered in March and April, began to show some improvement in May and June.

Fewer employees have returned to Manhattan offices than previously expected even with the city in phase four of its reopening, a survey has found. Just 8 per cent of employees were back at the office as of mid-August, according to a survey of 146 employers by the Partnership for New York City, a non-profit business group.

US companies’ confidence in a rapid recovery has ebbed since the early months of the pandemic, according to a poll that found 38 per cent of chief executives expect to cut their workforce over the next year. Just 62 per cent of chief executives surveyed in late July said they expected a recovery over the next six months, down from 71 per cent three months earlier.

Despite the near total cancellation of sports events because of the pandemic, sports betting revenues in the US have grown year-on-year, demonstrating the popularity of the activity, which was only made legal in 2018. Total revenues from sports betting were up 10.4 per cent in the year to date to $324.9m, outweighing a 46 per cent decline in the second quarter.

Ministers under pressure to review UK A-level results

Bethan Staton and Laura Hughes in London

The government is under mounting pressure to come to the aid of secondary school pupils in England after almost 40 per cent of A-level grades were downgraded from teachers’ predictions.

Amid an angry backlash from pupils and teachers, opposition parties and trade unions led calls for ministers to review how A-level results were modified by examination regulators using a computer algorithm.

But Boris Johnson defended the contentious arrangements aimed at preventing unwarranted grade inflation, saying there had been a “robust” marking system.

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US Treasury forced to pay up to fund record stimulus

Colby Smith in New York

The US government faced lacklustre demand for its latest record auction of long-dated Treasury bonds, marking one of its first missteps in funding historic spending packages passed by US legislators since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March.

On Thursday, the Treasury department struggled to offload $26bn of 30-year bonds at record-low interest rates. Instead, the bonds were sold at a yield of 1.4 per cent, more than 0.02 percentage points above market expectations at the time of the auction deadline.

Investors submitted bids for 2.14 times the amount on offer, the lowest bid-to-cover ratio for 30-year bonds since July 2019, according to Thomas Simons, a money market economist at Jefferies.

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Company news you might have missed

Riding the wave of booming plant-based meat sales amid the pandemic, Impossible Foods has raised $200m to fund further retail expansion and research into new products such as plant-based milk, pork and steak substitutes. The capital raise follows a $500m round earlier this year and takes the plant-based burger meat company’s total funding to almost $1.5bn.

Health authorities are battling a coronavirus outbreak at a food factory in the English city of Northampton where almost 300 employees making sandwiches and sushi for Marks & Spencer have tested positive. Greencore, the FTSE 250-listed food manufacturer that runs the facility, said it had contracted a private company to test all 2,100 employees at the site.

US luxury group Tapestry said its quarterly revenues fell less than feared as sales in mainland China recovered and consumers flocked online. The company behind Coach and Kate Spade said its net sales more than halved to $715m in the company’s fiscal fourth quarter ending June 27, compared with $1.51bn in the same period a year ago.

Carlsberg has become the first large brewer to reinstate financial guidance after the start of the coronavirus pandemic but disappointed investors by pointing to a weaker second half of the year. The world’s third-largest brewer said underlying operating profits would drop 10 per cent to 15 per cent in 2020, after an 8.9 per cent fall in the first half.

GVC, owner of bookmaker Ladbrokes Coral, has forecast 2020 earnings above analysts’ estimates with a rise in online gambling and the reopening of betting shops. Underlying earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation are expected to come in between £720m and £740m, only 3 to 5 per cent lower than the previous year.

Tui, Europe’s largest tour operator, said it posted a loss in earnings of €2.3bn in the nine months ending June 30. In the third quarter alone, it fell to a €1.5bn loss with revenues of €75m, down 98 per cent compared with the same period last year. The group said the hotels it had reopened were running at only a fifth of normal occupancy levels.

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