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What to Watch: AstraZeneca warns on coronavirus, RBS rebrand and markets' stimulus hopes

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·4 min read
FILE - In this Jan. 29, 2009 file photo, reflections are seen on a sign outside the global headquarters of AstraZeneca in London. Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca PLC reported a 22 percent rise in third quarter net profit on Thursday, Oct. 29. 2009, boosted by initial sales of its swine flu vaccine and delayed entry of generic drug competition in the United States. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)
AstraZeneca posted its results. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

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

AstraZeneca warns on coronavirus

The UK drugmaker AstraZeneca (AZN.L) has warned it expects the coronavirus to hits its growth targets.

It admitted its guidance for 2020 was “disappointing,” and assumed the outbreak would have an “unfavourable impact” on its sales in China for “up to a few months.”

The company said in its it expected 10% revenue growth in 2020 on Friday. Analysts had warned anything below double-digit sales growth marked a disappointment, according to Reuters.

But Russ Mould, investment director at AJ Bell, said the 2019 results were “fairly decent.” He added that the company was focusing on developing treatments that were harder for rivals to replicate, after “suffering from over-reliance on blockbuster drugs” that later lost patent protection in the past.

RBS to be renamed as profits almost double

Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS.L) nearly doubled annual profits for the second year in a row on Friday, as new chief executive Alison Rose announced a sweeping new strategy and plans to rename the bank.

RBS reported a 27% rise in pre-tax operating profit for 2019 to £4.2bn ($5.48bn), and a 93% rise in profit attributable to shareholders to £3.1bn. Both measures were well ahead of what analysts had been forecasting.

The strong profit growth shows continued momentum at the state-owned lender. RBS turned its first profit in a decade in 2017, before doubling profits in 2018. The bank remains 62% owned by the UK government after being bailed out at the height of the financial crisis.

Total income rose almost 6% in 2019 to £14.2bn, which was also ahead of forecasts.

Zuckerberg backs global tech tax

Facebook (FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg will on Saturday give his backing to global tax proposals that would likely see tech giants pay higher levels of tax.

In prepared remarks for a speech at the Munich Security Conference, Zuckerberg will say that Facebook accepting the scheme “may mean we have to pay more tax.”

The social media boss plans to say that he understands that there is “frustration” with how tech companies are taxed in Europe.

UK gets new chancellor in dramatic shakeup

Britain saw a new chancellor appointed in Thursday’s cabinet reshuffle, with Rishi Sunak taking the top finance job after Sajid Javid’s shock departure weeks before the UK budget.

Sunak’s elevation to the Treasury’s top job represents a remarkably rapid rise. He has never held a senior ministerial position before and only entered parliament five years ago.

Read more: New UK chancellor Rishi Sunak is Goldman Sachs and hedge fund veteran

Britain’s new chancellor is the son-in-law of a billionaire and spent his formative years in the City of London at hedge funds and top US investment bank Goldman Sachs (GS).

Analysts called it a “blatant power grab,” saying the choice of more junior Sunak paved the way for a “populist” spending boost in next month’s budget.

The pound rose on expectations the new chancellor could turn up the spending taps, with cash for infrastructure and even tax hikes potentially on the cards.

Stimulus hopes dispel markets’ virus fears

Leading stock markets largely tread water on Friday morning, as hopes of new central bank stimulus dispelled fresh fears about the coronavirus outbreak.

Markets had been hit on Thursday by a significant leap in cases and the global death toll after a change in how the virus is diagnosed in the Chinese province at the centre of the outbreak.

Leading European shares edged to record highs, with the pan-European STOXX 600 index (^STOXX) up 0.1%.

The FTSE 100 (^FTSE) was also up 0.1% in London, while Germany’s DAX (^GDAXI) rose 0.2% on Friday morning. But France’s CAC 40 (^FCHI) was down 0.2%.

"China is already easing its monetary policy and providing more liquidity while more stimulus is likely. Factories are starting to reopen albeit with some delays," Yukino Yamada, senior strategist at Daiwa Securities, told Reuters.

Asian stocks saw the most gains overnight. Hong Kong’s Hang Sen Index (^HSI) rose 0.3%, while China’s SSE Composite Index and Japan’s Nikkei (^N225) both rose 0.4%.

What to expect in the US

US stocks also looked set to rise on the open. Dow Jones futures were trading flat (YM=F), S&P 500 futures were up 0.1% (ES=F), and the Nasdaq looked set for a 0.2% rise (NQ=F).