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European equities drift as countries extend Covid lockdowns

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European equity markets were muted on Wednesday as investors weighed the worsening coronavirus pandemic against prospects of more fiscal stimulus in the US.

The Stoxx 600 benchmark and the UK’s FTSE 100 were 0.1 per cent lower by late morning, following a similarly lacklustre session on Wall Street overnight. Futures markets signalled the blue-chip S&P 500 share index would also drift around 0.1 lower at the start of New York trading.

In the latest signs of a growing pandemic threat, the Dutch government extended the nation’s coronavirus lockdown by three weeks and German chancellor Angela Merkel warned her country’s strict measures may last another eight to 10 weeks. The virus’s impact is also still being felt in Asia, with Japan declaring a “soft” state of emergency in Tokyo and surrounds in the past week.

“We are in the middle of a pandemic that does not have any end in sight,” said Tihana Ibrahimpasic, multi-asset specialist at fund manager Janus Henderson. “Investors are balancing supportive US fiscal policy and coronavirus vaccines with these further lockdowns, and a cloudy outlook of how quickly the vaccines can be distributed.”

The vaccine rollout has been slow in France, where an anti-vaccine movement is also gaining ground, while Germany’s political parties are arguing over Berlin’s decision to delegate procurement of the shots to the European Commission.

In the US, incoming president Joe Biden has pledged to press ahead with extra stimulus for the world’s biggest economy. Analysts at Goldman Sachs forecast he will add $750bn to a $900bn economic relief package agreed by US lawmakers late last year.

This has raised expectations of economic growth that could feed through to inflation, prompting a sell-off of US government bonds since the start of the year. Yields have reached their highest since last March, in turn lifting the dollar.

But this so-called reflation trade lost momentum on Wednesday, with the yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond losing 0.01 percentage points to just above 1.12 per cent as investors bought back in to the debt. The dollar, as measured against a basket of currencies, was narrowly higher.

The Federal Reserve is likely to begin tapering its debt purchases — a big support for the market since the coronavirus crisis — in 2022, according to Goldman Sachs economist Jan Hatzius. Stimulus spending meant US core inflation would rise above the central bank’s 2 per cent goal “somewhat more quickly than expected,” he added.

Peter Westaway, investment strategist at Vanguard, added that equities were vulnerable to an inflation overshoot “that causes the central bank to throw on the brakes more quickly than is currently priced in”. US stock markets were the most likely to react to such an event, he added, because unlike in Europe and the UK they were “richly overvalued” compared with historic levels.

In Asia, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index also drifted, closing down 0.2 per cent, while China’s CSI 300 lost 0.3 per cent. Japan’s Topix gained just 0.4 per cent.

Oil prices rose again on Wednesday. Brent crude, the international benchmark, reached a 10-month high above $57 a barrel, before easing slightly.

Crude prices have rallied by more than 50 per cent since the start of November. They have extended the run higher at the start of 2021, adding about 10 per cent since January 1, buoyed by hopes that the rollout of vaccines would boost transportation demand.

Saudi Arabia also pledged earlier this month to cut production by a further 1m barrels a day in February and March — or about 1 per cent of pre-pandemic demand — to help support the market, though analysts have cautioned that renewed lockdowns may eventually derail the rally in the short term.

“The oil market seems invincible right now,” said Stephen Brennock at oil brokerage PVM. “Yet given the near-term risks, it is only a matter of time before we see some profit-taking.”



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Stocks on Wall Street notch first back-to-back slide since March

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Global stock markets dropped on Tuesday, with companies whose fortunes are tied closest to the reopening of the global economy hardest hit.

Wall Street’s blue-chip S&P 500 index, which hit a high last week, fell 0.7 per cent to notch its first back-to-back declines since late March. The technology-focused Nasdaq Composite slipped 0.9 per cent.

Shares of travel and leisure companies led the retreat as global coronavirus cases rose. An index of stocks that Goldman Sachs estimates “stand to benefit the most in a reopening scenario” fell 2.6 per cent, with shares of hotel operator Marriott International declining 4 per cent and American Airlines falling 5 per cent.

Bank and financial stocks also slid after the European Central Bank gave a downbeat assessment of credit conditions in the pandemic-scarred bloc.

The declines come during what is expected to be a bumper quarterly earnings season. Blue-chip US companies are projected to report quarterly earnings growth of about 25 per cent year on year on the back of a strong economic recovery from the coronavirus.

But lofty equity valuations and a longstanding expectation that this earnings season would be stellar left little room for further improvements, said Trevor Greetham, investment strategist at Royal London.

“With stock markets, it is often better to travel than to arrive,” he added.

European equities also dropped on Tuesday after the region’s fragile economic recovery was called further into question by a survey suggesting that bank lending in the bloc was declining.

The Stoxx Europe 600 index closed down 1.9 per cent and the UK’s FTSE 100 dropped 2 per cent. The declines followed a survey from the ECB that raised questions over the durability of the region’s fragile economic recovery.

The report from the central bank, which comes ahead of its next monthly meeting on Thursday, showed that European lenders may restrict access to credit in the second quarter of this year.

“This reflects banks’ uncertainty regarding the severity of the economic impact of the third wave of the pandemic,” the ECB said.

The ECB has committed to spending €1.9tn on bonds, stepping up its purchases in recent weeks. Yet analysts fear policymakers may not communicate strongly enough how they plan to soften the blow from the health crisis.

“We do not expect to hear anything inspiring” from the ECB after Thursday’s meeting, said Nadège Dufossé, head of cross-asset strategy at fund manager Candriam.

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Analysts at Bank of America also forecast “no additional guidance for the months ahead” from the ECB. This, they said, could leave “room for market jitters ahead of the June meeting” while “the risk of a hawkish policy mistake can’t be ruled out”.

US government bonds strengthened as equities shifted lower. The yield on the 10-year Treasury, which moves inversely to its price, slipped 0.04 percentage points to 1.56 per cent.

The yield, which has climbed from about 0.9 per cent since the start of the year, influences borrowing costs worldwide and is highly sensitive to expectations about the central bank’s future interest rate decisions.

The US dollar climbed 0.1 per cent against a basket of peers but remained near its lowest level since early March. The euro was flat against the greenback at $1.2031 while sterling lost 0.4 per cent against the dollar to trade at $1.3933.

Brent crude settled 0.7 per cent lower at $66.57 a barrel.



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ExxonMobil proposes carbon storage plan for Texas port

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ExxonMobil is pitching a plan to capture and store carbon dioxide emitted by industrial facilities around Houston that it said could attract $100bn in investment if the Biden administration put a price on the greenhouse gas.

The oil supermajor is touting the scheme ahead of the US climate summit starting on Thursday, where President Joe Biden plans to announce more aggressive national emissions targets and hopes to spur world leaders to increase their own carbon-cutting goals.

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, “should be a key part of the US strategy for meeting its Paris goals and included as part of the administration’s upcoming Nationally Determined Contributions”, said Joe Blommaert, head of Exxon’s low-carbon focused business, referring to the targets that countries are required to submit under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Oil and gas producers have sought to highlight their commitments to tackle emissions ahead of this week’s climate talks, which promise to heap pressure on the fossil fuel industry. BP pledged to stop flaring natural gas in Texas’ Permian oilfields by 2025, while EQT, the country’s largest natural gas producer, said it backed federal methane regulations.

The International Energy Agency has called carbon capture and storage, which uses chemicals to strip carbon dioxide from industrial emissions, “critical for putting energy systems around the world on a sustainable path”.

But the technology has struggled to gain traction as costs have remained persistently high. The most recent setback in the US came last year with the mothballing of the Petra Nova project, the country’s largest, which captured carbon from a Texas coal-fired power plant.

Many environmental groups have been critical of the oil and gas industry’s focus on carbon capture, arguing it is used to justify continued investment in oil and gas production and is not economical, especially as the costs of zero-carbon wind and solar power have plummeted.

Exxon said that establishing a market price on carbon — which has been attempted by a handful of US states, Texas not among them — would be important. The US government should “implement policies to enable CCS to receive direct investment and incentives similar to those available to other efforts to reduce emissions”, Blommaert said.

Exxon declined to comment on the carbon price it thought was needed to justify the investment, but said its plan would generate $100bn of investment from companies and government in the Houston region.

The company’s plans call for a hub that would capture emissions from the 50 largest emitting industrial facilities along the Houston Ship Channel, such as oil refineries and petrochemical plants, and ship the carbon by pipeline to reservoirs for storage deep under the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

The project could capture and store about 100m tonnes of CO2 a year by 2040 if developed, Exxon said. That is 2 per cent of the roughly 4.6bn tonnes of US energy-related carbon emissions in 2020, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Exxon has been under intense pressure from investors, including a proxy fight with the activist hedge fund Engine No 1, to bolster its strategy for the transition to cleaner fuels. In February, it created a low-carbon business line that it said would spend about $3bn over the next five years.

Biden’s $2tn clean-energy focused infrastructure plan would expand carbon capture and storage tax credits. The administration said it would back 10 projects focused on capturing carbon from heavy industry, but it did not endorse a price on carbon.

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European stocks hit record after strong US earnings and economic data

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European equities hovered around record levels, the dollar dropped and government bonds nudged higher on Monday as markets continued to cheer strong economic data while also banking on continued support from the US Federal Reserve.

The regional Stoxx Europe 600 index gained 0.3 per cent during the morning to set a new record, before falling back to trade flat.

This follows a week of upbeat earnings from US banks as investors await results from big businesses including Coca-Cola and IBM later on Monday. Data released last week showed US homebuilding surged to a near 15-year high in March while retail sales increased by the most in 10 months.

The dollar, as measured against a basket of currencies, fell 0.4 per cent as bets on higher interest rates receded. The euro rose 0.4 per cent against the dollar to buy at $1.203. Sterling also gained 0.4 per cent to €1.389.

Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell told the Economic Club of Washington DC last week that the central bank would not taper its $120bn of monthly asset purchases until it saw “substantial further progress” towards full employment.

Haven assets such as government debt remained in demand. As prices ticked up, the yield on the benchmark 10-year US Treasury note fell 0.02 percentage points to 1.557 per cent, while the yield on the equivalent German Bund slid 0.01 percentage points to minus 0.271 per cent.

Investing convention assumes that US Treasuries and global equities move in opposite directions to cushion against falls in either asset class, but both have now rallied in tandem for an unusually sustained period.

The S&P 500, the blue-chip US stock index, has risen for four consecutive weeks to set new records. The yield on the 10-year Treasury has fallen from about 1.74 per cent at the end of March to just under 1.56 per cent on Monday as investors bought the debt. Treasuries and US stocks not have risen together for so long since 2008, according to Deutsche Bank.

Futures markets indicated the S&P would drift 0.2 per cent lower as Wall Street trading opens.

“I am not saying it’s a rational time in the markets,” said Yuko Takano, equity fund manager at Newton Investment Management. A reason for caution, she added, was signs of “bubbles” in alternative assets such as cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens. “There is really an abundance of liquidity. There will be a correction at some point but it is hard to time when it will come.”

“Markets may have become temporarily overbought,” strategists at Credit Suisse commented. “For now, we prefer to keep equity allocations at neutral” rather than buying more stocks, they said.

In Asia, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index closed up 0.5 per cent and Japan’s Topix slid 0.2 per cent.

Global oil benchmark Brent crude fell 0.3 per cent to $66.57 a barrel.



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