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Asian shares higher after selloffs spurred by Chinese virus


Shares mostly rose in early Asian trading on Wednesday after a slide in U.S. stocks overnight as a virus outbreak in China rattled global markets.

Japan's Nikkei 225 index climbed 0.6% to 24,013.15 and the Kospi in South Korea surged 0.8% to 2,256.95. In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng jumped 0.8% to 28,216.78. The S&P ASX/200 in Sydney gained 1% to 7,134.60, while the Shanghai Composite index edged 0.2% lower to 3,045.03. Shares fell in Singapore and Malaysia but rose in Indonesia.

There was little regional news apart from the virus to drive trading, though South Korea reported better than expected economic growth in the last quarter of 2019. It's GDP rose 1.2% from the previous quarter and better than the previous quarter's 0.4% growth. Economists attributed the stronger growth to increased government spending, reduced trade friction and a recovery in demand for semiconductors.

“It continues a noticeable trend of improving data in Asia over the past few months, which does imply a recovery is underway," Jeffrey Halley of Oanda said in a commentary. However, he noted that a “soft underbelly" of risk remains, as evidenced by the worldwide retreat by markets Tuesday as authorities confirmed the new coronavirus can be spread between humans and not just between animals and humans as earlier suspected.

Wall Street's selloff Tuesday snapped a three-day winning streak by the S&P 500. Investors worry that the new coronavirus spreading in the world’s second-largest economy could hurt tourism and ultimately economic growth and corporate profits.

That led many to shift into bonds and defensive sector companies, especially in health-related industries. On Wednesday, Chinese authorities reported the number of people confirmed infected had risen to 440, with nine deaths.

The number of cases of the virus first reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan jumped just as Chinese were preparing to make billions of trips for the Lunar New Year travel season.

A U.S. citizen who recently returned from China was diagnosed with the new virus in the Seattle area, making the United States the fifth country to report a case, following China, Thailand, Japan and South Korea.

Within the S&P 500, stocks of U.S. companies that cater to Chinese tourists had some of the biggest losses, along with general travel companies, such as casinos and airlines. Along with banks, industrial and energy stocks accounted for a big share of the selling. Those losses outweighed gains in real estate stocks, utilities and household goods makers. Traders also shifted money into U.S. government bonds, sending yields lower.

“From an investment standpoint, the risk with any virus is in the scope of its economic impact, and the mere fact that this has spread from China overnight to the U.S. so quickly reinforces the idea that the negative fallout could be global rather than local,” said Alec Young, managing director of Global Markets Research for FTSE Russell.

The S&P 500 fell 0.3% to 3,320.79. It had fallen as much as 0.4% earlier in the day. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 0.5%, to 29,196.04. The Nasdaq composite slid 0.2%, to 9,370.81. Smaller-company stocks took the brunt of the selling. The Russell 2000 index lost 0.8%, to 1,685.90.

To cope, investors were looking at playbooks for past outbreaks, such as SARS in 2002-2003, where airlines, railways and other transportation companies saw their stocks slide the most, followed by retailers and hospitality companies, according to strategists at Jefferies.

Las Vegas Sands fell 5.4% and Wynn Resorts tumbled 6.1% for two of the largest losses in the S&P 500. Both casino companies get most of their revenue from Macau on China’s southern coast.

Other travel companies also slumped on worries that customers may stay away due to virus fears. Royal Caribbean Cruises fell 4%, United Airlines lost 4.4%, and Booking Holdings dropped 3.1%.

Boeing shares slid 3.3% after the aircraft manufacturer said that it doesn't expect federal regulators to approve changes to the grounded 737 Max until this summer — several months longer than the company was saying just a few weeks ago.

Bond yields fell sharply, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note falling to 1.79% from 1.83% late Friday. That helped lift shares in homebuilders broadly higher, as a decline in the 10-year Treasury yield tends to pull mortgage rates lower. D.R. Horton climbed 2.3%.

Real estate investment trusts and utilities stocks rose as the decline in bond yields made dividend-paying stocks more attractive to income investors. American Tower rose 1.4%, while Edison International gained 1.6%.

Headlines about the spreading coronavirus gave investors an excuse to take profits following the market's recent record-setting run. The benchmark S&P 500 hasn't had a single-day drop of more than 1% since October.

“Investors have shown a lot of optimism, and that might make some a little bit skittish," said Willie Delwiche, investment strategist at Baird. ”Valuations are elevated. In this sort of environment, I don't think it takes much of a headline to trigger a reaction."

U.S. companies are in the midst of reporting their earnings results for the last three months of 2019, and early indications are encouraging. Less than a tenth of S&P 500 companies have reported their results so far, but of them, 72% topped analysts’ forecasts for profits. Those forecasts were low, to be sure, with analysts saying S&P 500 profits fell last quarter for the fourth consecutive time, according to FactSet.

Benchmark U.S. crude fell 24 cents to $58.14 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It dropped 20 cents on Tuesday to settle at $58.3 8 a barrel. Brent crude, the international standard, dropped gave up 22 cents to $64.37 per barrel. Overnight it lost 61 cents to close at $64.59 a barrel.

Gold fell $6.20 per ounce to $1,551.70. Silver fell 8 cents to $17.73 per ounce and copper fell 5 cents to $2.80 per pound.

The dollar rose to 110.03 Japanese yen from 109.86 yen on Tuesday. The slipped to $1.1082 from $1.1084.

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AP Business Writers Alex Veiga and Stan Choe contributed.