France's CAC 40 shed less than 0.1% to 5,360.55 in early trading, while Germany's DAX lost nearly 0.2% to 13,029.38. Britain's FTSE 100 slipped 0.5% to 6,304.49. But U.S. shares were set for gains, with Dow futures up 0.5% at 29,143 and S&P 500 futures up 0.6% at 3,555.25.
Reports of surging COVID-19 cases have had a sobering effect on markets that had advanced on hopes for a vaccine and expectations that pro-business policies will continue after last week’s U.S. elections.
“It feels a bit deflated today as investors look to hunker down for what is bound to be a winter of discontent. But beyond the market concerns, the vaccine cannot get here quick enough as what should be a festive time of the year looks bound to be weeks of holiday gloom," Stephen Innes of Axi said in a report.
Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 sank 0.5% to finish at 25,385.87. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 fell 0.2% to 6,405.20. South Korea's Kospi reversed course to add 0.7% at 2,493.87. Hong Kong's Hang Seng inched down less than 0.1% to 26,156.86, while the Shanghai Composite dipped 0.9% to 3,310.10.
In Japan, where the pandemic had seemed relatively under control at fewer than 2,000 cumulative deaths, the number of reported daily cases nationwide reached a record for the country on Thursday, at more than 1,660 people. Especially affected were Tokyo and the northern island of Hokkaido, raising worries that a recent government campaign to discount domestic travel might have helped spread infections.
Outbreaks in many parts of the world have doused optimism over promising results for a potential vaccine that had investors envisioning a possible return to normal. Such hopes have been tempered by a recognition that hurdles remain before the vaccine can become widely available, with medical workers and those with health risks likely getting access to such protection first.
Pessimism over scant chances the Democrats and Republicans will manage to reach agreement on further economic stimulus before the end of the year is another factor pulling shares lower, said Nobuhiko Kuramochi, market strategist at Mizuho Securities.
On the Tokyo Stock Exchange, issues related to real estate, transportation and energy were all falling, he said.
Coronavirus caseloads are rising at a faster pace in the U.S. in almost every state. In New York, for example, the state is ordering restaurants, bars and gyms to close at 10 p.m., beginning Friday.
New York was devastated by the virus earlier this year but seemed to have gotten it largely under control. In Europe, several governments have brought back even tougher restrictions that will likely restrain the economy.
In other trading, benchmark U.S. crude lost 66 cents to $40.46 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It lost 33 cents to $41.12 on Thursday. Brent crude, the international standard, fell 53 cents to $43.00 a barrel.
The U.S. dollar inched down to 105.10 Japanese yen from 105.13 yen late Thursday. The euro cost $1.1813, edging up from $1.1803.