European stocks drift higher after sharpest global rally of 2021

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European stock markets edged higher on Wednesday following a strong rally that reflected a burst of optimism that the Omicron coronavirus variant would prove less economically disruptive than feared.

The regional Stoxx 600 index added 0.2 per cent in early dealings after closing 2.4 per cent higher on Tuesday. London’s FTSE 100 rose 0.3 per cent and Germany’s Dax fluctuated in a tight range. In Asia, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng traded flat and Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 added 1.4 per cent.

Global stocks rose the most in more than a year on Tuesday, after whipsawing in the past fortnight as investors debated the potential impact of Omicron, which has appeared more transmissible than previous variants.

The Stoxx and Wall Street’s S&P 500 completed their strongest two-day rise of 2021, according to calculations by Deutsche Bank, after early South African data suggested Omicron was also less likely to result in serious illness than other strains.

However, a study by the Africa Research Institute late on Tuesday offered mixed results on how the variant responded to the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, finding a loss of immune protection that was “extensive but incomplete”.

“We still have a high degree of uncertainty about the pandemic,” cautioned Juliette Cohen, strategist at CPR Asset Management, adding that thin trading conditions during the holiday season meant market moves “are going to be more amplified than they should be” until January.

Moves this week by Chinese authorities to manage the decline of ailing property developer Evergrande and support the housing market have also boosted global market sentiment.

The renminbi on Wednesday stood at its strongest point against the US dollar since about May 2018, with one dollar purchasing Rmb6.35. China’s CSI 300 share index gained 1.5 per cent.

The yield on the 10-year US Treasury note dipped 0.02 percentage points lower to 1.46 per cent as the price of the benchmark debt instrument rose.

Germany’s 10-year Bund yield was steady at minus 0.374 per cent, close to its lowest level since early September, as haven buying of low-risk government bonds overshadowed pre-Omicron nerves about how a hawkish shift in US monetary policy may affect debt markets.

Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell indicated last week that he would support a quicker reduction of the central bank’s $120bn-a-month bond purchases that have boosted markets since March 2020.

Leading economists expect the Fed will end its asset-purchase programme by the end of March next year, setting the stage for rate rises soon after, according to a survey conducted in partnership with the Financial Times by the Initiative on Global Markets at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

“Markets are currently positive but there’s a potential narrative shift we need to be careful about,” said Anthony Collard, head of investments for the UK and Ireland at JPMorgan Private Bank.

The Fed’s asset purchases have lowered borrowing costs and bond yields, in turn driving investors into speculative assets such as early-stage technology stocks and cryptocurrencies.

“We are in a position where the Fed is starting to turn that exercise around,” Collard said. “It is a headwind.”

Analysts polled by Refinitiv expect US inflation data for November, set to be released on Friday, to show consumer prices surged 6.8 per cent from the same month last year because of pandemic-related disruptions to supply chains and a rebound in the travel sector.

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