U.S. spending boom offsets Europe's lockdown blues

LONDON (Reuters) – World stocks ran higher on Thursday following their slowest quarter in a year, as U.S. economic strength offset the return to strict COVID-19 lockdown measures in parts of Europe and elsewhere.

FILE PHOTO: The front facade of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) is seen in New York City, U.S., March 29, 2021. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

U.S. President Joe Biden’s sweeping $2.3 trillion plan to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure lifted MSCI’s 50-country world index for a second day running, while oil jumped 1.5% before an OPEC meeting expected to keep supply tight.

Asian markets had seen a strong finish with a late burst pushing Chinese shares up 1.2%, and Europe’s STOXX 600 shrugged off France’s new lockdown order to push back towards its pre-COVID record highs.

Wall Street futures and the euro edged up, too, and government bond yields held their ground, as the European Central Bank’s chief economist reiterated that the ECB had no intention of curbing its support despite rising inflation.

IHS Markit’s Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) showed euro zone factories seeing their fastest pace on growth in the survey’s near 24-year history, although lockdowns and supply chain issues may soon rein it in.

Inflation data on Wednesday had shown euro zone inflation accelerated to 1.3% in March from 0.9% a month earlier. A slight dampener ahead of the Wall Street bell was an unexpected rise unemployment benefit claims.

“The biggest question, the million-dollar question now, is where is the landing zone for inflation,” said Geraldine Sundstrom, an asset allocation portfolio manager at PIMCO.

“Will it feed on itself or will it come back to a comfortable level … this is the thing that will drive the central banks in whether they take away the punch bowl or not.”

Wall Street futures pointed to early 0.5% gains for the S&P 500 and other major U.S. markets, while benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasuries were sat at 1.70%, down from 1.77% overnight but having started the year at just over 0.9%.

The dollar consolidated its healthy 3.5% first-quarter gain, though it did not seem ready to go anywhere fast.

The euro changed hands at $1.1740, after hitting a near five-month low of $1.1704. Against the British pound, the common currency was flat after hitting a 13-month low of 85 pence per euro.

President Emmanuel Macron ordered France into its third national lockdown on Wednesday while the euro zone is lagging well behind the United States and Britain in vaccination programmes.

“As long as the news flow on either side of the Atlantic is more or less diametrically opposed, there is really not much to be said in support of the euro,” Commerzbank analyst Antje Praefcke wrote to her clients.

Graphic: U.S. yields and inflation


U.S. markets had closed out the first quarter with gains – the S&P 500 rose 5.8% and the Dow Jones 7.8% over the three months.

However, the 4.1% quarterly rise in world stocks was the slowest since the recovery from last March’s meltdown began and many of the fabled FAANGs and the 2020 star stocks such as Tesla had ended it down.

Risk-sensitive currencies reflected that on Thursday, although the approaching long Easter weekend thinned trade. The Australian dollar fell as much 0.7% to $0.7535, its lowest since December, and the yuan and kiwi dollar also slipped.

Australia’s fastest home-price gains in more than three decades last month also point to some of the side effects of ultra-easy monetary policy, possibly putting pressure on central banks to curtail support sooner than they had planned.

Other signs of fragility in sentiment included the flop listing of food-delivery company Deliveroo, which fell by nearly a third on its London debut on Wednesday, and nerves following the fire sale of U.S. hedge fund Archegos Capital’s portfolio.

Commodities were mixed. Brent oil prices jumped 1.5% to $63.5 barrel on talk that OPEC and its allies will keep production curbs in place later in the face of resurgent COVID-19 infections in some regions. Crude surged 25% in the first quarter.

Gold, which pays no income, hung on to overnight gains to trade at $1,718 an ounce. Even so, it suffered its worst quarter start to a year in 39 years owing to the rise in U.S. yields.

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