Stocks edge higher despite ongoing Greek debt fears as ministers prepare to meet

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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LONDON - European stock markets won some respite Monday ahead of a meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Brussels, where the Greek debt crisis will inevitably top the agenda.
Public holidays in Asia, the United States and Canada kept volumes low on markets elsewhere Monday.
The FTSE 100 index of leading British shares closed up 25.02 points, or 0.5 per cent, at 5,167.47 while Germany's DAX rose 10.71 points, or 0.2 per cent, at 5,511.10. The CAC-40 in France was 11.27 points, or 0.3 per cent, higher at 3,610.34.
The New York and Toronto stock exchanges were closed Monday, as were other major North American markets while the United States celebrated Presidents Day and several Canadian provinces, including Ontario and Alberta, had holidays.
And with Wall Street closed Monday, investors held back from launching a new attack on the euro, which remained steady over the day around the US$1.36 mark. Last week, at the height of the Greek fiscal concerns, the euro had slid to a nine-month low of $1.3533, way down on December's high above $1.50.
The Canadian dollar ended the day up 0.25 of a cent at 95.33 cents U.S. on Monday.
The main point of interest in the markets continues to be the debt problems afflicting Greece, as finance ministers from the 16 euro countries gather in the wake of last Thursday's meeting of EU leaders. On Tuesday, the finance ministers of the full 27-nation European Union meet.
Though EU leaders gave Greece some vocal support, no money or guarantee was offered, primarily because Germany was not willing to stump up cash as that could undermine German bonds and put further pressure on the euro.
Instead, all agreed that Greece's progress in bringing down its budget deficit will be closely monitored and it would not be allowed to threaten the eurozone. Markets interpreted the latter comment as an implicit guarantee that eurozone policymakers will help the country if its own efforts fail.
An ensuing narrowing in spreads between German and Greek bonds - a sign that the markets think a Greek default is becoming less likely - and a more steady tone to the euro have diminished expectations that anything substantially new will emerge later.
Frederik Ducrozet, eurozone economist at Credit Agricole, said last Thursday's EU statement was interpreted as a "major commitment" to support Greece to avoid possible contagion risks to other countries like Portugal and Spain.
Greece's finance minister George Papaconstantinou said Monday that a detailed rescue plan from other eurozone nations would be the best way to soothe market fears that Greece could default on debt payments.
"My guess is that what will stop markets attacking Greece at the moment is a further more explicit message that makes operational what has been decided last Thursday," Papaconstantinou said.
Dubai is also a growing market concern amid fears that the highly indebted emirate may repay creditors less than the amounts due - it was November's debt postponement from Dubai World, a government investment company with around $59 billion in debts, that stoked the markets' concerns about overborrowed countries.
Dubai's stock market fell sharply while the cost of insuring against the emirate's debts edged back up.
"The theme of sovereign debt risk is likely to remain on investors' agenda as fresh rumblings in Dubai make clear," said Neil Mackinnon, global macro strategist at VTB Capital.
Earlier, much of Asia was closed for the Lunar New Year holiday, including Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and Seoul.
However, Japanese and Australian markets fell as investors reacted to China's move late Friday to curtail bank lending to cool off strong growth there.
Better-than-expected Japanese fourth quarter economic growth figures failed to lift Tokyo's benchmark Nikkei 225 index, which slid 78.89 points, or 0.8 per cent, to close at 10,013.30. Analysts said that the monetary tightening in China - the second such move in a month - and uncertainty about the economic outlook in coming quarters weighed on sentiment.
Japan's gross domestic product grew at an annual pace of 4.6 per cent in the October-December period, keeping Japan just ahead of China as the world's No. 2 economy. Japan's nominal GDP for the 2009 calendar year came to about $5.1 trillion, ahead of China's $4.9 trillion.
Australia's benchmark S&P/ASX200 fell 16.6 points, or 0.4 per cent, to 4,545.5.
Wall Street is closed for the Presidents Day holiday.
Elsewhere, oil prices were flat, with benchmark crude for March delivery down 18 cents to $73.95 a barrel.

Organizations: European Union, FTSE 100, North American Credit Agricole VTB Capital S&P

Geographic location: Greece, United States, Asia Germany LONDON Brussels Canada France New York Toronto Ontario Alberta Dubai China Japan Portugal Spain Hong Kong Shanghai Singapore Seoul Tokyo Australia

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