Wuhan reports no new virus cases, offering hope to world

By Ken Moritsugu And Nick Perry

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

BEIJING _ Last month, Wuhan was overwhelmed with thousands of new cases of coronavirus each day. But in a dramatic development that underscores just how much the outbreak has pivoted toward Europe and the United States, Chinese authorities said Thursday that the city and its surrounding province had no new cases to report.

The news offered a rare glimmer of hope for the rest of the world as it battles the virus, and perhaps a lesson in the strict measures needed to halt its spread. It came as President Donald Trump likened the fight to  “a war” and invoked emergency powers that allow him to compel manufacturers to deal with the pandemic.

Wuhan was where the outbreak first took hold and thousands once lay sick or dying in hurriedly constructed hospitals. But Chinese authorities said Thursday that all 34 new cases recorded over the previous day had been imported from abroad.

“Today we have seen the dawn after so many days of hard effort,” said Jiao Yahui, a senior inspector at the National Health Commission.

Still, the virus continued to take its toll elsewhere, both human and economic. Stocks tumbled again on Wall Street on fears of a prolonged recession, falling so fast they triggered another automatic trading halt, while major U.S. auto manufacturers said they were shutting down their North American factories.

Italy was on track to surpass China by Thursday in the number of deaths related to coronavirus, a gruesome milestone that is being blamed on a perfect storm of Italy’s elderly population, its overwhelmed healthcare system and its delay in imposing a complete lockdown in the epicenter, Lombardy.

Elsewhere around the world, more borders shut, leaving some to wonder how they would get back home. In the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand shut out tourists, allowing only citizens and residents to return, while Fiji reported its first case, a worrying development in a region with poor healthcare.

The U.S. and Canada both closed their borders to all but essential travel and Trump said he plans to assert extraordinary powers to immediately turn back to Mexico anyone who crosses over the southern border illegally.

Russia and Mexico each reported their first death from the virus. Mexico closed its popular spring equinox visits to the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon at Teotihuacan.

While China did not report any new cases in Wuhan or Hubei province it did record eight additional deaths.

Jiao said the  “double-zero” increase, which followed several days of improving numbers, meant their control and medical treatment methods were working well.

Wuhan has been under a strict lockdown since January. Officials are moving to loosen travel restrictions, but only inside the surrounding province of Hubei where most checkpoints will be taken down. Wuhan remains cut-off, with only those with special permission allowed to travel in or out.

The lockdown will be lifted there only if no additional cases are reported for two consecutive weeks, which may happen next month, Li Lanjuan, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, was quoted as saying.

The improvement in China contrasted with the situation in Italy, where another 475 people died, bringing the death toll close to 3,000. Italy has the world’s second oldest population after Japan and some 87% of those who have died have been over age 70.

Italy is on pace to overtake China’s approximately 3,250 dead when Thursday’s figures are released. Iran has also been hit hard, with more than 1,100 deaths.

The virus has infected more than 218,000 people worldwide and killed over 8,800. The United Nations warned that the crisis could lead to the loss of nearly 25 million jobs around the world.

More than 84,000 people overall have recovered from the virus, which causes only mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough in most cases. Severe illness is more likely in the elderly and those with existing health problems.

Though China still has the largest number of cases, most of its patients have recovered. China even sent medical supplies to hard-hit France, returning a favour done by the French weeks ago.

Around the globe, governments took increasingly drastic measures to fight the epidemic and the threat of a recession, in some cases using emergency powers.

Czech authorities used emergency powers to raid a warehouse and seize hundreds of thousands of face masks. And Hong Kong widened the use of electronic wristbands that monitor people under self-quarantine.

In the U.S., the Dow Jones Industrial Average shed more than 1,300 points on Wednesday, or over 6%, and has now lost nearly all of the gains it had posted since Trump’s inauguration. Oil dropped below $21 per barrel for the first time since 2002. Shares in Asia continued their slide on Thursday.

The White House pressed Congress to swiftly pass a potentially $1 trillion rescue package to prop up the economy and speed relief checks to Americans in a matter of weeks.

Calling himself a “wartime president,” Trump invoked the Defence Production Act of 1950 to steer industrial output and overcome shortages of face masks, ventilators and other supplies as hospitals brace for an expected onslaught of cases.

The Korean War-era law gives the president extraordinary authority to compel industries to expand production and turn out vital materials.

California’s governor warned that martial law could be imposed. The mayor of New York said the city’s 8.6 million residents should be prepared for a lockdown.

Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler, along with Honda and Toyota, said they will shut all of their factories in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The closing of Detroit’s Big Three alone will idle about 150,000 workers, who are likely to receive supplemental pay in addition to unemployment benefits.

At GM’s pickup truck assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, workers have been fearful since the virus surfaced in the U.S., said Tommy Wolikow, who has two young daughters.

“That’s the thing that I was scared the most about, being the one to bring it home to them,” he said.

The U.S. has reported more than 9,400 coronavirus cases and at least 138 deaths, about half of them in Washington state, where dozens of residents from a suburban Seattle nursing home have died.

Scientists have no doubt the true number of people infected is higher than reported because of the possibility that many mild cases have gone unrecognized or unrecorded, and because of the lag in large-scale testing in the U.S.

In the first breakdown of its kind in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the nation’s coronavirus deaths so far mirror what has been reported in other countries, with about 4 out of 5 fatalities occurring in people 65 and older, and no deaths in children.

“How are we going to eat?” Virus tests Europe’s social nets

By Aritz Parra And Nicole Winfield

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

MADRID _ The morning rush-hour scene at Madrid’s Atocha train station this week perfectly captured the dilemma facing Europe as it confronts the coronavirus.

Governments have locked down commerce, beefed-up health care measures and earmarked billions of euros into Europe’s famed safety nets to cushion the economic blow to businesses and blue-collar workers alike from measures meant to contain the virus.

But trimmed commuter train schedules at Atocha, the main gateway into the Spanish capital for the working classes, meant that huge crowds formed on the platforms, defeating the government’s appeal for “social distancing.” Layoffs looming and real meant that those who still had work reported for duty – with or without protective masks – even if they would have preferred to stay home.

“I fear the coronavirus, but I fear more not being able to pay the utility bills,” said Mari Carmen Ramirez, 55, who was commuting to her 950-euro ($1,100) a month job as an office cleaner. “When this is all over, how are we going to eat?”

As European governments pass sweeping spending measures to address the pandemic, they are being called on to look out for the workers who are not only losing their jobs – the waitresses and tour guides, hairdressers and hotel maids – but those who still must show up because they can’t work from home. Europe’s famed safety nets are being stretched thin, at a time when many economies were already skirting recession and wealth gaps have grown.

Will it be enough?

Governments from Prague to Paris, Lisbon to London are deferring tax payments, approving short-term unemployment schemes and paid sick leave to cover even those in preventive quarantine. Hardest-hit Italy approved 25 billion euros in measures, including vouchers for babysitters. The Czech government offered a 750-euro stipend for students studying abroad who opt to stay abroad through Easter. Denmark said it would pay 75% of employees’ salaries if companies promise not to fire staff.

“This epidemic will be a catastrophe for all countries of the world,” warned French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire in announcing 45 billion euros ($50 billion) in aid for small businesses on top of the tens of billions already promised for individuals forced to stop working because of workplace closures.

“The shock will be violent.”

In Spain, now with the second most infections in Europe after Italy, the left-wing coalition government announced Tuesday a mix of social and economic measures, including credit guarantees for companies and subsidies for workers, worth one fifth of the country’s annual GDP.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez dubbed the 200 billion-euro (220-billion dollar) package as the largest in Spain’s recent history.

“We want a way out of the economic emergency in a V-shape rather than in an L-shape, for the onset to be of a rapid recovery and not stagnation,” he said.

The economic blow is already evident with companies likes German carmaker Volkswagen’s Spanish unit temporarily laying off more than 14,000 from its Martorell plant, near Barcelona. The workers will be paid 80% of their wages until they are re-hired, hopefully as soon as the economy recovers.

More than 100,000 workers were affected by similar temporary layoff schemes across industries, Spain’s Cinco Dias business newspaper calculated.

The economic pain is particularly high in countries like Italy and Spain, which are still feeling the aftereffects of the global financial crisis. The percentage of people classified as economically vulnerable – those who are poor, face high debt or unemployment – was 26% in 2017 in Spain, higher than the European Union average of 22%.

“I have no gloves, no mask, but supermarkets are to remain open, we have been told,” said Genesis Suarez, a 25-year-old supermarket clerk who commutes from Atocha and whose father was fired from his construction job on Friday.

“With my father at home, I need to contribute to the family’s cashbox. We are still going to receive the electricity bill at the end of the month, aren’t we?”

Policymakers’ initial response to the turmoil was focused on keeping the financial system running with central bank interest rate cuts and cheap loans for for banks.

Governments have also pledged loans, with Germany offering at least 460 billion euros ($513 billion) in guarantees. Britain announced 330 billion pounds ($405 billion) worth of government-backed loans and guarantees for small and large businesses, specifically to help firms pay their rent, the salaries, suppliers. Several countries are expanding short-term work programs that were successful during the 2008 financial crisis in keeping people on the payroll.

But again those measures do not address the needs of many of the most vulnerable: the poor but also manual labourers like cleaners and contractors without a fixed salary.

“We have about 50% slump in food collection,” said Sabine Werth, head of the “Berliner Tafel” food bank in the German capital, where donations are drying up. Already seven of the food bank’s 45 distribution points have closed, depriving the neediest of food close to home.

While some governments, like those of France and Denmark, have promised to guarantee the majority of individuals’ salaries, detail on how they will do that is still largely unclear – though urgently needed.

Jim O’Neill, the former chief economist at Goldman Sachs who is now chair of the U.K.-based Chatham House think-tank , said cash should be funnelled directly to people.

That would be an evolution of the monetary stimulus central banks have provided since the global financial crisis 12 years ago, in which they injected newly created money into the banking system.

“At the core of these views is the notion of giving money to people, especially lower income people, directly paid for by our central banks printing money,” he said in a note. “Until recently, I found myself having very little sympathy with these views but, as a result of COVID-19, I have changed my mind.”

Governments, meanwhile, are bolstering and broadening existing safety nets.

Britain will ensure workers are entitled to the legal minimum sick pay from the first day of illness rather than from day four. It’s unlikely to be enough, however, since the legal minimum is a mere 94.25 pounds ($115) a week.

An analysis by the Resolution Foundation think-tank in Britain suggested that a typical self-employed worker could see income fall by three-quarters if forced into quarantine, while a typical worker eligible for the legal minimum would lose over two-thirds of normal pay.

On Tuesday, Britain’s Treasury chief, Rishi Sunak, said that following discussions with lenders, three-month mortgage holidays will be available for those in financial difficulty “so that people will not have to pay a penny towards their mortgage while they get back on their feet.”

Other governments are also postponing the payment of taxes, social insurance and mortgages and offering extra paid leave, though the measures appear to be piecemeal.

`’Many Italians are in the front-line trenches: in the hospitals, in the factories and in the pharmacies, behind the cash registers at the supermarkets,“ Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said in a national address.

`’No one will be abandoned,” he vowed.

The workers reporting for the night shift at the Tenaris steel plant in Bergamo, Italy, felt more than abandoned. They felt terrified. They had been demanding for over a week to be allowed to take vacation rather than continue working with coronavirus claiming more infections in the province of Bergamo than anywhere else in Italy.

Factories had been exempted from the government’s March 11 shutdown decree, meaning the blue-collar workers of Italy’s industrial heartland were forced to report for duty. Last week, workers at plants across Italy began going on strike or threatening to do so.

“We were really afraid, to be sitting side-by-side for eight hours without knowing what the conditions were,” Tenaris steelworker Giambattista Morali said. “The company disinfected and gave us some more masks, but it wasn’t enough because we couldn’t guarantee that we’d be working one meter apart.”

While many people suffer relatively mild symptoms from the virus, the mortality rate has been particularly high in Italy, thanks in part to its elderly population.

The same health concerns abounded this week at the Atocha station, where railway officials weren’t doing anything to distance commuters jostling to catch their trains.

“What is this?” wondered Antonio Galiano, a 38-year-old commuter. “Be serious, please, it’s our lives that are at stake.”

Will Technology Replace Insurance Agents?

The excerpted article was written by Lev Barinskiy | Forbes

Chatbots, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning — technology is changing the landscape of the insurance industry. There’s a new facial recognition software, created by Lapetus Solutions Inc., that analyzes how well a candidate for life insurance will age. Facial recognition technology already promises to prevent fraud and crime at ATMs and self-checkout counters. Emotion recognition technology holds the promise of preventing insurance fraud by building upon facial recognition. It could help agents recognize a person’s emotional state based on voice signals and word usage. These tools may help agents and carriers measure risk while better serving consumers but are also creating some anxiety about whether robots will soon replace insurance agents.

Some of us in the insurance business remember the days when carriers relied on an agent’s gut feeling when it came time to determine risk based on personal knowledge or predictions. Many things have changed since then. Not only do carriers have far more precise, sophisticated predictive models, but in my experience, they also no longer allow agents to deviate from set pricing.

While there isn’t much insurers can do about technology pushing price as the bottom line, they can and are using some tools to their advantage. For instance, 2017 McKinsey research suggested that automation could reduce the cost of a claims journey by as much as 30%. Technology can also prevent challenges like cybersecurity threats through accurate predictions. Chatbots are assisting customers on a 24/7 basis at many businesses, which could increase customer retention. But this all leads to the question: How can an agent compete with the new technology? Can the two co-exist in the future?

According to U.K.-based firm Autonomous Research, AI and machine learning could replace over $1 trillion of the current financial services cost structure. And let’s be clear: The savings would likely largely be attributed to displaced jobs. Why shouldn’t insurance agents worry, then, with predictions that around 2.5 million financial jobs will be gone by the year 2033?

In the heyday of the neighborhood brick-and-mortar insurance shop, agents were the face and brand of an insurance company. While agents continue to interact with clients via phone, in person and over the internet, carriers are experimenting with technology to increase direct interaction with clients. Insurance carriers are already getting insurance leads from insurtech companies like mine, Compare (a SmartFinancial.com client) and The Zebra. Many businesses are also using technology to enhance the quality of insurance jobs. In fact, according to Deloitte’s 2017 white paper, the insurance industry is lagging behind compared with banking and financial services in its adoption of automation. Only recently have I seen insurers looking to explore the benefits of robotics and AI. However, that does not mean that agents will not still be needed. Robotics and AI, more than anything, could automate transactions and processes like claims processing and document verification. (Lemonade, a SmartFinancial.com client, and Hippo are already incorporating automation.) Consumers could see more options for self-service, and over time, I believe this will create less of a need for back-office jobs. On the flip side, there will be a greater demand for agents with skills in data analytics and machine learning.

READ MORE HERE AT FORBES

Aon to buy Willis for nearly $30 billion in insurance mega-deal

Aon to buy Willis for nearly $30 billion in insurance mega-deal

(Reuters) – UK-based insurance broker Aon Plc (AON.N) said on Monday it would buy Willis Towers Watson (WLTW.O) for nearly $30 billion in an all-stock deal that creates the world’s largest insurance broker and adds scale in a battle with falling margins.

The deal unifies the sector’s second and third largest names into a company worth $76 billion by current share prices, overtaking market leader Marsh & McLennan (MMC.N), as they face challenges ranging from the coronavirus to climate change.

First mooted a year ago, the deal also comes after a period of brutal competition which has seen insurance premiums fall while claims continue to grow.

Aon confirmed last year that it was in early stage talks with Willis Towers before quickly scrapping the plans, without giving a reason.

Analysts said at the time that an Aon-Willis deal might have trouble clearing anti-trust hurdles. The deal terms state Aon will be obligated to pay a fee of $1 billion to Willis if the deal were to fall through.

Marsh last April sealed its own purchase of British rival Jardine Lloyd Thompson for $5.7 billion, cementing its position as the biggest global player.

Under the deal, Willis shareholders would receive 1.08 Aon shares, or about $232 per share as of Aon’s Friday close, representing a total equity value of $29.86 billion. The offer is at a premium of 16% to Willis’s closing price on Friday.

Shares in Aon were down 2.7%, while Willis’ shares rose just 1.42% in trading before the bell in a New York market that was set to fall heavily across the board due to Monday’s collapse in oil prices.

“Aon generally has a successful acquisition history but given the timing it is not certain how investors will react to the acquisition in the short-term,” said Paul Newsome, managing director at brokerage Piper Sandler.

When the deal closes, existing Aon shareholders will own about 63% and existing Willis investors will own about 37% of the combined company on a fully diluted basis.

The deal is expected to add to Aon’s adjusted earnings per share in the first full year of the deal, with savings of $267 million, reaching $600 million in the second year, with the full $800 million achieved in the third year.

Newsome said the deal multiple was about 19.3 times 2020 earnings per share (EPS) estimate of $12 for Willis and about 12.3 times its 2020 core earnings (EBITDA) estimate.

This compares to the peer group median trading at about 22.6 times earnings and 13.6x core earnings, he said.

The deal is subject to the approval of shareholders and regulatory approvals and is expected to close in the first half of 2021.

Aon will maintain its headquarters in London and the combined firm will be led by Aon Chief Executive Officer Greg Case Greg Case and Aon Chief Financial Officer Christa Davies.

Aon’s financial advisor for the deal is Credit Suisse Securities, while Willis was advised by Goldman Sachs.

What the virus outbreak means for home loans, mortgage rates

By Hal M. Bundrick, Cfp, And Holden Lewis Of Nerdwallet

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Federal Reserve cut short-term interest rates by half a percentage point on Tuesday in an effort to protect the economy from more damage from the virus outbreak. The move may present options for mortgage shoppers.

What does all this mean for home buyers? Or those looking to lock in a mortgage rate? For owners considering a refinance? And for those holding an adjustable-rate mortgage?

WHY THE FED CUT INTEREST RATES

Mortgage rates started falling weeks before the Fed’s emergency rate cut. By reducing the federal funds rate, the Fed is playing catch-up, following the lead of the market forces that set mortgage rates.

The novel coronavirus identified in late 2019 has been of increasing concern to the world’s stock and bond markets. The distress stems from uncertainty about how the officially named COVID-19 outbreak will impact manufacturing, tourism, travel, the hospitality industry and even consumer spending.

“Lower rates are likely to drive refinances higher and may entice home buyers out to shop as well. That’s certainly the Fed’s hope,” says Danielle Hale, chief economist for Realtor.com. “However, if buyers are hesitant to go shopping because they want to avoid contact with others, this could dampen home sales.”

THE IMPACT ON MORTGAGE RATES

The Federal Reserve manages the interest rates used by banks to borrow from each other. It’s a foundation for how longer-term interest rates move.

While mortgage rates are not directly affected by Fed rate decisions, they can’t resist the general direction of the bond market. Lenders use the 10-year Treasury as a guide to pricing loans, and the yields have reached record lows.

Mortgage rates are likely to follow, at least in the near-term. The 30-year loan is already approaching _ and at times sinking below _ the all-time low of 3.31% (with 0.70 discount points) reported by Freddie Mac on Nov. 21, 2012.

The news is also good for those with or shopping for adjustable-rate mortgages and home equity lines of credit, which are directly guided by Fed rate cuts. ARMs will likely see lower rates at their next reset period, and HELOCs could fall half a percentage point in the next billing cycle or two.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU’RE:

BUYING A HOME

If you’re in the market to buy a home, you probably face competition from other buyers because there aren’t enough homes for sale to meet demand.

There’s only so much that lower mortgage rates can do to stimulate home sales. Mortgage rates and affordability aren’t the biggest challenges in today’s housing market, Hale says. “A lack of options continues to be the largest hurdle,” she says.

Here are tactics that make you more likely to prevail in a hot housing market:

_ Get a mortgage preapproval. A preapproval letter gives sellers confidence that you’ll be able to get a loan and that the sale will go through.

_ Limit contingencies, such as requesting that the seller make repairs or pay your closing costs.

_ Let the seller know that you can be flexible about the closing date if that’s possible.

If the fear of COVID-19 makes you reluctant to tour homes but you’re committed to buying this year, “now is the time to strike,” says Daryl Fairweather, chief economist for Redfin, an online real estate broker. “People who commit now are going to have an advantage over people who wait.”

REFINANCING

Plenty of homeowners are refinancing now. Lenders are enduring heavy workloads. You can do your part to lighten the load by submitting a complete application, with all the necessary documentation. Online applications usually will let you know if you haven’t provided all the necessary documents.

Other tips:

_ Know why you’re refinancing so you can get the right loan. It might be to get a lower monthly payment, to shorten the loan term, replace your adjustable-rate mortgage with a low fixed-rate loan, to borrow more than you owe in a cash-out refinance, or to get rid of FHA mortgage insurance.

_ Shop more than one lender. You’re more likely to land the best possible deal if you apply with multiple lenders. Each lender will give you a disclosure document called a Loan Estimate. By comparing Loan Estimates, you’ll be able to identify the best offer.

_ Lock your rate for long enough. During normal times, a 30- or 45-day rate lock for a refinance is sufficient to close the loan on time. But when so many homeowners are refinancing at once, it might behoove you to get a longer rate lock. Ask your loan officer for guidance.

Be careful of getting a cash-out refinance. “It might be tempting to take cash out, but especially if you’re worried about a recession in the future, or your job security, it might not be the best idea,” Fairweather says. You want to have a cushion, instead of taking out all your equity, she says.

HUB International buys Morneau Shepell’s benefits consulting business for $70M

TORONTO _ Insurance brokerage HUB International Ltd. has signed a deal to acquire Morneau Shepell Inc.’s benefits consulting practice.

Morneau Shepell says Hub paid $70 million for the business.

Chief executive Stephen Liptrap says Morneau Shepell made the decision to sell the business after a comprehensive review.

He says the benefits consulting business is a strong, profitable asset and a great fit for Hub.

JP Girard, Morneau Shepell’s health and benefits consulting Canadian practice leader, has joined Hub as an executive vice-president.

Chicago-based Hub is a global insurance broker that provides property and casualty insurance, health and life insurance, employee benefits, investment and risk management products and services.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2020.

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