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Futures fall after debate as stocks head for first down month since March, Disney declines

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U.S. stock futures declined early Wednesday as a contentious U.S. presidential debate raised more uncertainty around the election. The market headed for its first negative month since March.

Disney added to the negative sentiment after saying it would lay off 28,000 people in its theme parks division. The shares lost more than 2% in premarket trading.

Dow Jones Industrial Average futures lost 200 points, or 0.7%. The move indicated a drop of about 130 points at the open. S&P 500 futures fell 0.6%. Nasdaq 100 futures lost about 0.7%. Futures were off their worst levels of the session.

The S&P 500 is down 4.7% in September, on pace for its first monthly losses since March. The Nasdaq Composite is down 5.9% in September, while the Dow is off by 3.4%.

Traders were hoping that the start of the debate process will lead to a clear winner on Election Day and not a drawn-out electoral process that could hit the market. The vicious first debate did little to ease those concerns.

“It was a long night and there’s a lot that needs to be sorted out,” said Daniel Deming, managing director at KKM Financial. “It became pretty apparent that this thing is not going to be over on Nov. 3 and I think the market is probably not too crazy about that.”

“The short-term volatility pressures probably won’t abate anytime soon after this debate. In a sense, it’s creating even more uncertainty,” Deming said. 

President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden sparred on a number of issues, including their qualifications to manage the U.S. economy, the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court as well as the U.S.’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden came into the debate with an average lead of 6.1 percentage points in recent polls, according to RealClearPolitics. The former vice president was also the favorite to win the election in betting markets heading into the debate.

“Most people come away from it thinking it was an ugly experience,” said Marc Chandler, chief market strategist at Bannockburn Global Forex. “I don’t think it changed peoples’ minds really.”

Many market strategists have cited uncertainty around the election as a key headwind for the market before year-end with each outcome bringing its own risks and benefits. Some investors have raised concerns about a potential Biden win as they fear it could lead to higher corporate taxes and tighter regulations. But at the same time, it could ease concerns about the trade war and lack of stimulus to bolster the economy in the wake of the coronavirus.

Investors are also worried about the potential the Nov. 3 result is too close to call and neither candidate concedes. That uncertainty could particularly weigh on the market.

Trump frequently claims that mail-in balloting leads to voter fraud even though experts have repeatedly said there’s no proof of that ever having been a problem in the United States. Last week the director of the FBI told a Senate committee that there’s no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the United States “whether it’s by mail or otherwise.”

Regardless, on Tuesday night Trump said, “As far as the ballots are concerned, it’s a disaster. This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.”

“I think we’re going to do well because people are really happy with the job we’ve done. But we might not know for months because these ballots are going to be all over” the place,” he added. 

“Questions on election fraud were raised, which will add to concerns about a volatile post-election period if there is a close or uncertain electoral outcome,” wrote Ed Mills of Raymond James in a note entitled “Dumpster Fire Debate.”

Still, positive data regarding a potential coronavirus treatment from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals kept some of the market’s losses in check.  

Regeneron said after the close Tuesday its REGN-COV2 drug reduced viral levels and improved symptoms in non-hospitalized coronavirus patients.

“The greatest treatment benefit was in patients who had not mounted their own effective immune response, suggesting that REGN-COV2 could provide a therapeutic substitute for the naturally-occurring immune response,” Regeneron Chief Scientific Officer George D. Yancopoulos said in a statement.

Regeneron shares rose 4% in early trading.

The major averages snapped a three-day winning streak on Tuesday, with the Dow falling more than 100 points, or 0.5%. Those losses came amid concerns over a virus resurgence. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio said the city’s daily positive rate of coronavirus tests is back above 3% for the first time in months.

“Coronavirus infection rates are rising in Europe and the United States as children return to school,” Terry Sandven, chief equity strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management, wrote in a note. “We expect the United States to continue its modest pace of economic improvement, though virus growth and a softer labor market are threats.”

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China to reveal its five-year (FYP) growth strategy in Xi Jinping era

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One technique for staying upbeat during the pandemic

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As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, it can be difficult to remain upbeat.

Aside from the health implications and associated financial stressors, uncertainty over the outcome of the virus has eroded one of the key contributors to our overall happiness, making optimism hard to obtain.

“A sense of control is very important for happiness,” Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of “The Optimism Bias,” told CNBC Make It.

Indeed, in her research during the height of lockdowns, Sharot and her peers at University College London found that control was the number one contributor to people’s overall level of happiness: Those who felt they had a sense of agency in their day-to-day lives were far happier than those who did not.

In the months since then, people have adapted to the pandemic and the average person’s happiness level has returned to a “baseline,” said Sharot, describing happiness like a treadmill.

Tali Sharot, cognitive neuroscientist at University College London and author of “The Optimism Bias”

Tali Sharot

“You can go up and down, but people do converge to a certain baseline of happiness,” she said. “That’s true when things are very, very difficult; they eventually find their way back to that baseline. But also when things are good; after a while, they adapt to these good things and go back to the baseline.”

However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t find new ways to boost our happiness levels, said Sharot.

One of the best ways of doing that is to start making plans, or what she calls “anticipatory events.” Such tactics can not only help us regain feelings of excitement but also that sense of control, she said.

Anticipation makes us happy in and of itself.

Tali Sharot

cognitive neuroscientist, University College London

“Anticipation makes us happy in and of itself,” said Sharot. Indeed, in a 2010 Dutch study of close to 1,000 holidaymakers, researchers found that the act of planning a holiday contributes a greater boost to respondents’ happiness levels than the aftermath of the trip itself.

Of course, planning for the future can be easier said than done right now. With so many unknowns ahead and further potential lockdowns looming, it can be difficult to arrange anything with certainty.

However, such plans don’t need to be huge or immovable. They could range from vacation for next summer to smaller highlights like dinner with friends, watching a movie or going on a hike.

“It’s important to still get into the habit of making those plans, putting them in the diary, and having things that we can look forward to,” she said.

Don’t miss: Why optimism could be unhelpful in a pandemic, according to behavioral psychologists

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Commercial property prices are a risk for banks and bond investors

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(Photo: Getty Images | d3sign)

SINGAPORE — Commercial real estate prices have plunged this year as people stopped going into offices, and retail businesses were disrupted. That could lead to a significant amount of losses for banks, according to a recent report.

In previous downturns, commercial property loan losses were “heavy” and there are worrying signs that such a trend could be repeated this time during the coronavirus-induced slowdown, Oxford Economics’ Adam Slater said in a report.

In a worst-case scenario, Slater said these loan losses would “materially erode” bank capital.

“Large (commercial real estate) price declines generally translate into big losses for banks. Write-offs of (commercial real estate) loans made a big contribution to overall bank losses in the last two major downturns,” wrote Slater, an economist at the firm.

During the 2008 great financial crisis, for example, such loan losses accounted for between 25% and 30% of total loan write-offs in the U.S.

This time those risks look highest in the U.S., Australia, and parts of Asia such as Hong Kong and South Korea. In these economies, lending growth has been high, with “significant” loan exposure. But commercial property prices are already sliding, especially in Hong Kong, the report said.

In Singapore, office rents had their steepest decline in 11 years in the third quarter, official data showed on Friday. Rents for office space fell 4.5% in the latest quarter till September.

The firm’s index of global commercial real estate prices based on seven large markets show they are down 6% from last year.

“Could the coronavirus crisis lead, via the commercial property sector, to long-term problems for the banking and financial systems? … we think it is a genuine concern,” Slater wrote.

“Currently, hotels are running at very low occupancy rates, retail units have seen sharp declines in customer footfall, and many offices are closed or running with very low staffing levels,” he said. “In these circumstances, rental income and debt repayments from affected sectors are in grave doubt.”

Oxford Economics analyzed 13 major economies and found that write-offs of 5% of loans would amount to the equivalent of a loss between 1% and 10% of banks’ tier 1 capital, their primary funding source including equity and earnings. The biggest impact would be felt in Asia, it said.

Bond investors may also be at risk.

In the U.S., around half of the lending by this sector is not made through bank loans, and that includes the issuance of bonds in the sector, according to the report. In parts of Europe and Asia, that proportion of borrowing through the non-bank sector has risen to 25% or more, in recent years.

“In the case of property funds, (commercial real estate) downturns could see a rush by investors to redeem their holdings leading to fire sales of assets — amplifying price declines and broader loan losses,” said Slater.

But there’s one bright spot. Banks are in better shape to absorb them as compared to a decade ago. Their capital and leverage ratios are around double the levels a decade ago, Slater said.

Following the financial crisis, reforms were introduced to mitigate risk and improve the resilience of the global banking sector, by maintaining a certain leverage ratios and levels of reserve capital.

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