Here’s what you need to know:
- Global markets fall as investors take stock of the outbreak.
- Amid shortage, California strikes deal for masks.
- Puzzle makers are struggling to keep up with the holiday-level surge in sales.
- South Korea boosts stimulus measures to help exporters.
- Wall Street’s rally fizzles.
- Catch up: Here’s what else is happening.
Global markets fall as investors take stock of the outbreak.
Global stock markets fell moderately on Wednesday, as investors paused to assess the world’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
London stocks opened less than 1 percent lower, after a generally down day in Asia. Futures for American stocks suggested Wall Street would open mildly higher on Wednesday, one day after a rally fizzled.
Investors had in recent days found solace in signs that the outbreak is peaking in some of the hardest-hit parts of the United States and Europe. On Wednesday China lifted its lockdown on the city of Wuhan, where the virus first emerged, in another sign of progress.
But markets remain fragile. Japan and South Korea this week joined other countries preparing big economic rescue packages. Still, the freeze on economic activity from virus containment efforts could have a negative impact for months and years and require even more economic stimulus actions by world leaders.
Reflecting that skepticism, prices for U.S. Treasury bonds, a traditional investment safe haven, were largely higher in Asia trading on Wednesday. On the positive side, oil prices rose on futures markets, in part on hopes that major producing countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia could put aside their differences.
In Japan, the Nikkei 225 index bucked the global trend and rose 2.1 percent one day after Japanese leaders announced their big economic rescue package. In mainland China, the Shanghai Composite index fell 0.2 percent. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index fell 1.2 percent. South Korea’s Kospi fell 0.9 percent.
The FTSE 100 index in London was 0.9 percent lower in morning trading. France’s CAC 40 index was down 1.4 percent. The DAX index in Germany was 0.5 percent lower.
Amid shortage, California strikes deal for masks.
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California said late Tuesday that the state had secured nearly 200 million masks a month for California health care workers, an extraordinary sum amid the severe shortage of masks, though his office was short on specifics on how it pulled off such a deal.
A spokesman for Mr. Newsom said the state would purchase the masks from overseas manufacturers in two separate deals with a California nonprofit and a California company. The spokesman declined to name the nonprofit and the company, declined to say which companies were making the masks, and declined to disclose the price California would pay.
Demand for masks has far outstripped supply in recent weeks, driving some prices 10 times higher than before the pandemic.
Mr. Newsom said the state had previously purchased smaller amounts on a case-by-case basis but decided to pool its resources for bigger deals.
“We decided enough of the small ball,” he said on MSNBC on Tuesday. “Let’s use our purchasing power. Let’s go at scale.”
He said the deal would include about 150 million N95 masks a month, the top-line masks medical workers need around coronavirus patients. In comparison, the federal government said last month that it signed deals to buy 600 million N95 masks over 18 months.
California is also acquiring a machine that can clean nearly 2.5 million N95 masks a month for reuse, Mr. Newsom’s spokesman said. The masks are set to start arriving in the next few weeks, he said.
Puzzle makers are struggling to keep up with the holiday-level surge in sales.
With much of the world under lockdown and looking to kill time, jigsaw puzzles have taken on a new role: a tool to save humanity. Australia’s prime minister even referred to jigsaws as essential and allowed people to leave the house to buy them.
The rush to get hold of a jigsaw puzzle has transformed this quiet hobby and put companies under pressure as demand surges.
Ravensburger, a German puzzle maker with global sales of about $600 million a year, has been trying to meet the sudden blizzard of orders even as social-distancing measures have limited the number of puzzles it is able to produce.
The company can’t easily ramp up production, because each new puzzle takes weeks to create.
Each puzzle piece must be uniquely shaped, to avoid one accidentally fitting into the wrong place. That means 1,000 different shapes for a 1,000-piece puzzle, each drawn by hand. Before a puzzle is cut for the first time, each piece is sketched on a sheet of paper draped over the finished image.
Pieces of metal are then shaped to form an elaborate cookie cutter made just for that jigsaw puzzle; it takes about four weeks to build one. The cutter can be used only a limited number of times before its edges are dulled. It can be resharpened once and must then be discarded. At busy times of the year, the company will go through several cutters a day.
But before any pieces are cut, the company chooses the right image for a puzzle.
“Very rarely does it work well to just take a good-looking image and put it on a puzzle package,” said Filip Francke, the chief executive of Ravensburger in North America.
South Korea boosts stimulus measures to help exporters.
South Korea announced a new 36 trillion won — or $29.5 billion — stimulus package on Wednesday aimed at cushioning its export-driven economy from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The new package added to a series of economic rescue measures totaling more than $80 billion that South Korea has announced in recent weeks to shore up its battered economy and help self-employed people and small- and medium-size businesses that have been hit the hardest.
The package announced on Wednesday will come in the form of cheap loans for the country’s exporters.
During an emergency meeting of senior economic policymakers, President Moon Jae-in said his government had also drawn up new measures worth 17.7 trillion won, or about $14.5 billion, to boost domestic consumption. He didn’t provide details.
“The global economy is being sucked into a severe depression and, as a result, our economy, heavily dependent on the external conditions, is facing a tsunami-like shock,” Mr. Moon said. “This is a tunnel, the end of which we cannot see yet.”
Mr. Moon revealed the new stimulus package as political parties in South Korea were campaigning for a crucial parliamentary poll next Wednesday. His governing Democratic Party had once appeared to face a tough campaign as Mr. Moon’s diplomacy with North Korea remained in a stalemate and discontent over a slowing economy deepened.
But the approval ratings of Mr. Moon and his party have been on the rise in recent weeks as South Korea was praised by other nations for its effective handling of the epidemic.
South Korea has aggressively deployed test kits and other disease-control resources to isolate patients and contain the virus. The number of new cases, once as high as 813 on Feb. 29, has dropped to around 50 in the past three days. The country had recorded a total of 10,384 coronavirus cases as of midnight Tuesday, with 200 deaths.
Wall Street’s rally fizzles.
U.S. stocks ended slightly lower on Tuesday after an early rally faded late in the day.
The S&P 500 fell 0.2 percent at the close of trading. Earlier, stocks had been more than 3 percent higher as investors took heart in continued signs that the coronavirus outbreak may be peaking in a number of hard-hit places.
The decline came as benchmark U.S. crude oil fell 9.4 percent on Tuesday, after having climbed earlier in the day, trimming gains in shares of major oil producers. Oil prices have plunged by more than half since most state governments ordered people to stay home.
Stocks have been on a fairly strong, even if disjointed, run over the past two weeks. Initially fueled by Washington’s $2 trillion effort to counter the economic effect of the pandemic, the rally took on a more hopeful tone on Monday — reflecting glimmers of progress in the fight against the virus’s spread in the United States and Europe.
Through Tuesday, the S&P 500 is up nearly 19 percent from its March 23 low. (It’s still more than 21 percent below its high, reached on Feb. 19.)
Catch up: Here’s what else is happening.
Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter and Square, said that he planned to donate $1 billion, or just under a third of his total wealth, to relief programs related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Reporting was contributed by Choe Sang-Hun, Jack Nicas, Austin Ramzy, Carlos Tejada and Amie Tsang.