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What to Watch: COVID-19 testing demand, Cineworld sales slip, and markets crash

Oscar Williams-Grut
Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
A lab technician begins semi-automated testing for COVID-19 at Northwell Health Labs on 11 March in Lake Success, New York. (Andrew Theodorakis/Getty Images)

Here are the top business, market, and economic stories you should be watching today in the UK, Europe, and abroad:

French company: Huge demand for COVID-19 tests

A French company that makes COVID-19 diagnostic tests is increasing manufacturing capacity after seeing surging demand.

Novacyt (ALNOV.PA) said Thursday it had sold £2.3m ($3m, €2.6m) worth of COVID-19 tests so far this year, boosting revenue at the subsidiary that makes them to unusually high levels. The number of markets it is selling into has also doubled to 50.

Novacyt said it is has been scaling up manufacturing, increasing output by ten times to pump out 2 million tests a month.

The company also said Public Health England is “very satisfied” with its tests and Novacyt expects to see an increase in NHS orders as a result. The company is working with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to get approval in the United States.

“The sale of our COVID-19 test has already generated significant revenue for the company, which we expect to continue given the increasing demand for the test,” chief executive Graham Mullis said. 

"In addition, we believe interest in our COVID-19 test will have a positive, long-term impact on Novacyt as new customers look to purchase our broader product range.”

Shares in Novacyt jumped 12.2% in Paris, while most stocks across Europe fell.

Cineworld craters on COVID-19 warning

Shares in cinema chain Cineworld (CINE.L) collapsed after the company warned COVID-19 could cause it to default on debts.

Cineworld said a “downside scenario analysis” where it lost two to three months worth of revenue found the company would likely breach covenants on its debt. The company has financing and credit totalling over $4bn.

Mooky Greidinger, chief executive officer of Cineworld Group, said: “We are closely monitoring the evolution of COVID-19 and, so far, we have seen minimal impact on our business.

“However, there can be no certainty on its future impact on our activities, hence we are taking measures to ensure that we are prepared for all possible eventualities.”

Shares dropped 47%.

The warning came as Cineworld reported falling profits last year, despite a rise in revenues and admissions.

Pre-tax profits fell 39.1% to $212.3m (£165.6m) on the back of higher one-off costs. Sales increased by 6.1% to $4.37bn (£3.4bn) after admissions rose from 272.6m to 275m for the year.

Markets crash on US travel ban

European stocks plunged on Thursday after US president Donald Trump issued a sweeping 30-day European travel ban to combat the spread of coronavirus, putting global markets on track for another day of sharp losses.

The pan-European STOXX 600 index (^STOXX) fell by around 7% in the wake of the restrictions, which will apply to the 26 countries in the European Union’s Schengen border-free travel area.

The ban, which will go into effect from midnight on Friday, will not apply to the UK or Ireland.

The FTSE 100 (^FTSE) was nonetheless down by more than 5.6% in London on Thursday. Germany’s DAX (^GDAXI) fell by around 7%, while France’s CAC 40 (^FCHI) sank by nearly 6.9%.

Futures are also pointing to sharp losses in the US.

S&P 500 futures (ES=F), Dow Jones Industrial Average futures (YM=F), and Nasdaq futures (NQ=F) are all down by more than 4.5%.

WH Smith shares plunge after coronavirus profit warning

Shares in newsagents WH Smith (SMWH.L) plunged 15% on Thursday after the retailer warned profits and sales this year would be lower due to coronavirus.

Slumping global travel means fewer people are picking up newspapers, magazines, and snacks at airports and train stations around the world.

WH Smith said it has seen “a significant impact” on its business in Asia since February, as people stop going to shops and air travel slumps. The decline in global travel will also hit revenues from airport stores in the UK and US, WH Smith said.

The spread of the COVID-19 and efforts to contain it could also hit High Street sales, WH Smith warned. However, the retailer said it is “not seeing a significant impact” so far.

Overall, sales are expected to be £100m ($128m) to £130m lower than previously expected in the 12 months to 31 August 2020. Pre-tax profit is likely to be between £30m and £40m lower.

Berkeley freezes £455m shareholder return over coronavirus fears

Shares in UK developer Berkeley (BKG.L) sank on Wednesday after it shelved plans to hike shareholder returns by £455m because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The planned giveaway, over the course of two years, had been unveiled in January. But the developer said on Wednesday it would be postponed “until there is greater clarity of operational impact of coronavirus on UK economic activity.”

The developer, which builds mainly in London, Birmingham and the south of England, said its board was “keen to stress” its continued commitment to enhanced shareholder returns. The plans will be reassessed in June.

Trafford Centre-owner loses £2bn and warns on future

Intu (INTU.L), the shopping centre group behind Manchester’s Trafford Centre, fell to a £2bn ($2.5bn) loss last year as the value of its properties plummeted.

Under pressure Intu said on Thursday annual losses near doubled to £2bn in 2019, due to a big write down in the value of its shopping centres. Revenue fell by 6% to £542.3m as tenant shops negotiated lower rents or fell into administration.

“Our results are evidence of the challenges in our market, in particular structural changes ongoing in the retail sector,” Intu chief executive Matthew Roberts wrote in the report.

House prices expected to increase amid growing demand

UK property prices appear to be going up amid growing demand from buyers, according to surveyors.

A net balance of 29% of surveyors reported a rise in house prices in February, up from a balance of 18% the previous month, according to the February 2020 Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) UK Residential Market Survey.

Furthermore, a net balance of 22% of surveyors expect house prices to continue to increase over the spring, RICS said.

Sales of new homes across the UK increased for the third month in a row and a net balance of 20% of property professionals saw an increase rather than a fall in inquiries from new buyers in February.

Experts are predicting an improved sales outlook for the rest of the year, with 61% saying they expect more homes to be sold in 2020.

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