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Stocks slip as jobs angst trumps stimulus

Tom Wilson and Tom Westbrook

World share markets have fallen as nerves over jobs data likely to lay bare the economic carnage from the coronavirus pandemic outweighed a $US2 trillion US stimulus package.

The US Senate on Wednesday backed the massive bill aimed at helping jobless workers and industries reeling from the virus, with the package heading for the House of Representatives for vote on Friday.

Yet already questions flew over whether the bill would do enough to soften the disease's economic hammer blow, with investors bracing for jobs data forecast to show a huge spike in unemployment in the world's biggest economy.

Europe's broad Euro STOXX 600 fell 1.6 per cent, with bourses in Frankfurt, London and Paris all down around 2 per cent as a two-day rally faltered.

The sour mood was worsened by slumping consumer morale in Germany and data showing stagnant retail sales in Britain last month, even before the virus hit.

It followed a mixed session in Asia, where MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan rose 0.7 per cent but regional performances varied.

The Nikkei snapped three days of gains with a 4 per cent drop, while Australia's benchmark rose for a third day - its longest winning streak in six weeks.

Global markets have lost about a quarter of their value in the last six weeks of virus-driven selling.

And while investors have found a measure of support as governments and central banks launch unprecedented support measures, investors were struggling to work out how bad the coronavirus impact would be.

"No-one is sure how long things are going to be locked down for, how wide the virus will spread in the US, what the death toll and hit on the economy will look like," said Salman Baig, portfolio manager at Unigestion in Geneva.

Markets were to get a glimpse of the on-the-ground damage to the US economy, with data on jobless claims due at 1230 GMT. Forecasts in a Reuters poll ranged from 250,000 to 4 million unemployment claims.

RBC Capital Markets economists had expected a national figure over 1 million, but say "it is now poised to be many multiples of that," as lockdowns drive deep layoffs.

"Something in the 5-10 million range for initial jobless claims is quite likely," they wrote in a note.

That compares to a 695,000 peak in 1982.

Citi Private Bank said the peak total could reach 15-18 per cent of the total US workforce, some 25 million people.

E-mini futures for the S&P 500 last traded down 2 per cent, while the MSCI world equity index, which tracks shares in 49 countries, fell 0.2 per cent.

The money at stake in the stimulus bill amounts to nearly half of the $US4.7 trillion the US government spends annually.

But it comes against a backdrop of bad news as coronavirus spreads and signs of economic damage grow across the globe.

Tokyo's governor asked residents to avoid going out and to "act with a sense of crisis". Spain's coronavirus death toll has overtaken China's, with more than 21,000 people deaths globally.

In Singapore, the economy suffered its biggest contraction in a decade in the first quarter and factories posted their largest output drop since records began in 1983.

The sense of unease was also reflected in currency markets.

The dollar lost 0.4 per cent against a basket of six major currencies to 100.50 as its recent rally continued to lose steam. It also slumped 0.8 per cent against the perceived safety of the Japanese yen.

The softer greenback also buoyed emerging market currencies, with MSCI's index touching a one-week high.

Oil fell as fears of plunging demand outweighed expectations of support from the US stimulus. Brent crude futures fell 3 per cent to $US26.55.