Stimulus hopes keep global stocks afloat
World shares held in positive territory in quiet trade on Thursday with US stocks staying near four-year highs after Chinese economic data kept hope alive that central banks would do more to bolster growth.
Encouraging US economic data also lent support to markets as the number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits declined last week, while the trade deficit in June was the smallest in 1-1/2 years.
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Data from China showed annual consumer inflation hit a 30-month low last month and industrial output grew at its slowest pace in about three years. Markets saw that as a sign that officials would do more to stimulate the world's second-largest economy, which has been losing momentum since the start of last year.
Those hopes butted up against worries that the European Central Bank, which outlined a plan last week to help rein in escalating borrowing costs in Spain and Italy, was taking too long to follow through. The lack of details kept traders' optimism in check, and the S&P 500 ended little changed.
ECB governing council member Christian Noyer said on Thursday the central bank is determined to bring down those borrowing costs and should be ready to intervene decisively in bond markets very soon.
"The markets have run up quite a bit for quite a while...and the story is always the same - the hope for stimulus from the ECB, from the Federal Reserve, from the Chinese - from everywhere," said Philippe Gijsels, head of research at BNP Paribas Fortis Global Markets.
"From now until the end of August, I'm not saying every day should be up, but normally I think we're going to have a firmer tone for the market."
The euro fell as investors consolidated recent gains, although the decline was expected to be short-lived.
"As long as investors continue to take the ECB at face value that it will not allow the euro to unravel, we think the euro's downside may be limited," said Joe Manimbo, senior market analyst at Western Union Business Solutions in Washington.
The euro fell 0.5% to $1.2299, well below a one-month high of $1.2443 set on Monday.
Corn prices rallied to an all-time high ahead of a US government report that is expected to show the disastrous impact on crops from the worst domestic drought in over half a century.
CBOT December corn hit a peak of $8.29-3/4 a bushel before easing to $8.23-3/4. The previous peak of $8.28-3/4 was set on July 20 by the spot September contract.
Brighter US economic data and worries about tighter supply pushed oil prices higher. Brent rose for a fifth session, gaining $1.08 to $113.22 a barrel, though US crude oil cut most of its gains to settle up 1 cent at $93.36 per barrel.
"The general mood is bullish - any dip is still being used as a buying opportunity," said Carsten Fritsch, an energy analyst at Commerzbank in Frankfurt.
The FTSE Eurofirst 300 index of top European shares ended up 0.5%, nudging closer to a fresh 2012 high, while the MSCI world equity index gained 0.2%.
Action on Wall Street was muted, with investors wary of taking aggressive bets. While the S&P 500 has chalked up three-month highs every day this week, the index has climbed only 0.6% over the past three sessions.
"It's almost eerie how flat the market has been. But while there's a risk of our becoming overbought, I don't see why we'd see a decline of any magnitude until we hear what central banks will do," said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia.
The Dow Jones industrial average dipped 10.45 points, or 0.08%, to 13,165.19. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index added 0.58 point, or 0.04%, to 1,402.80. The Nasdaq Composite Index gained 7.39 points, or 0.25%, to 3,018.64.
US Treasury prices slipped but ended the day off session lows after an auction of 30-year bonds capped debt sales for the week. Benchmark 10-year Treasury notes were trading with a yield of 1.693%.
Evidence that the euro zone's debt and growth problems have caused a slowdown in economic activity in the United States and Asia has added to expectations that other major central banks will soon announce their own plans to ease policies.
Over the last five years, the world's major central banks have cut interest rates to record lows and pumped trillions into the financial system through unconventional policies, an attempt to prop up global growth as households, companies and governments try to reduce high levels of debt.
Exactly five years ago - on August 9, 2007 - the ECB got the ball rolling when it injected an unprecedented amount of funds into a stalled financial system after French bank BNP Paribas said losses on US subprime mortgages had forced it to halt redemptions at three of its funds.
Other leading central banks followed suit on a day widely regarded as marking the start of the financial crisis.