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Global markets plunge as coronavirus crisis rocks Italy

February 24, 2020, 10:03 AM UTC

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Good morning, and greetings from Italy, the new front line in this global health crisis. All indicators are pointing to one of the worst—if not the worst—trading sessions since the coronavirus outbreak first emerged in mid-January, with the Dow and S&P 500 pegged to open down about 2%. I’m seeing a “- 722” handle on Dow futures flash across my screen right now.

What’s moving markets? It’s all coronavirus.

Markets update

The Asian and European markets are deep in the red this morning, as are U.S. futures. The South Korean and Italian markets plunged on Monday as both countries deal with a spike in new infections. Samsung shut down key business operations in the country as the number of cases hit 763.

Here in Italy, the cases are confined to the country’s industrious north, which is triggering all kinds of concerns the stalled economy could plunge into recession in coming quarters. Local authorities, meanwhile, have locked down towns, companies have closed offices in Milan and beyond, and Venice called off carnival festivities. Italy’s main bourse is down 4.4% as I type.

European airlines, travel and leisure and automotive sectors are among the worst performers. Budget airline EasyJet sunk 11.5% in early trading. The benchmark Stoxx Europe 600 Index fell as much as 3.6%, the most since June 2016.

Looking out more broadly, the dollar is soaring, crude is falling and the 30-year U.S. Treasury hit an all-time low as investors flock to safe havens.

We’ll be following the coronavirus fallout all week. But I want to switch gears now to another big piece of news from over the weekend: Warren Buffett‘s annual letter to shareholders.

Buffett’s big bets

At the end of last week, speculation was rife that Warren Buffett would reveal a succession plan as the Berkshire Hathaway CEO nears his 90th birthday. News flash: the greatest stock-picker of his time isn’t going anywhere.

But there was still plenty of news in his annual letter, and in the accompanying 2019 full-year report. I’m going to touch on one: the big changes in Berkshire’s stock portfolio, subject of today’s chart.

***

When the buy-and-hold Buffett piles into a company, it’s an enormous vote of confidence for that stock and for its management team. Conversely, when he reduces his holding it’s a warning that the company is on the wrong track.

So, who’s Buffett bullish on?

Let’s start at the top. Berkshire acquired 10.2 million shares of Visa, a stake worth a bit under $2 billion at year-end. Buffett is also long JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America, as the chart above shows. Berkshire increased its JP Morgan Chase holdings by 20% in the past year.

Buffett’s not sold on all his Big Finance bets, however. Berkshire cut back on Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo, by one-third and nearly one-quarter, respectively. It also sold off some Apple shares.

On most normal days, that kind of news would weigh heavily on those particular stocks. But the coronavirus contagion is the giant gravitational pull on the markets these days. It’s taking everything down with it—even Buffett’s more beloved holdings.

That’s it for me. I’ll see you here tomorrow, everyone. Buona giornata.

Bernhard Warner
@BernhardWarner
Bernhard.Warner@Fortune.com

Today's reads

November surprise? President Trump’s re-election is by no means a foregone conclusion, and investors shouldn’t underestimate the potential for turbulence in some market sectors. So say UBS, which thinks investors are still too confident that a Trump re-election is a given, reports Fortune’s Anne Sraders. Recent national polls "portend a close general election contest between any Democratic nominee and President Trump", says UBS Global Wealth Management's chief investment officer Mark Haefele, cautioning that "investors might be underestimating the risk of higher volatility in certain sectors that are sensitive to potential policy changes."

Tax deal. With the U.S. tax season in full swing, tax and accounting software giant Intuit is set to pounce on personal-finance portal Credit Karma Inc. Intuit, well known for its TurboTax software, is nearing a deal to buy the San Francisco-based startup for about $7 billion in cash and stock, propelling the company further into the realm of consumer finance, The Wall Street Journal reports.

HSBC setback. The six-month-long search for a new chief executive at Europe’s biggest bank, HSBC, looks set to drag on even longer. Jean Pierre Mustier, the chief executive of Italy’s UniCredit, had been identified as the preferred external candidate by HSBC’s board of directors, setting up a potential two-horse contest with internal contender Noel Quinn, named interim chief executive in August. However, Mustier phoned Mark Tucker, HSBC’s chairman, Sunday to tell him he was no longer interested in the job and had decided to stay at UniCredit, the Financial Times reported.

Market candy

Quote of the day. “Charlie and I long ago entered the urgent zone.”  

Legendary investor Warren Buffett, reassuring Berkshire Hathaway shareholders in his annual letter that the company is 100% prepared for the departure of Buffett, 89, and partner Charlie Munger, 96. The Oracle of Omaha told how, long ago, a friend in his 80s, Joe Rosenfield, received a letter from his local newspaper asking for biographical details it could use in Rosenfield’s obituary. When he didn’t reply, the newspaper sent a second letter, marked “URGENT.”