Markets stall as US budget talks spark concern
WORLD shares held near 17-month highs today, ending a week-long rally, while oil fell as the latest setback in talks to avert a US fiscal crisis kept buyers away.
In the currency market, the Bank of Japan's widely expected decision to ease policy for a third time in four months encouraged traders who had sold the yen ahead of the move to take profits, sending the dollar and euro up.
However, as trading winds down ahead of the holiday season all markets are sensitive to progress in Washington - or the lack of it - in talks to avert automatic tax rises and spending cuts that could tip the US economy into a recession.
"The 'fiscal cliff' is a reality and I believe that markets have got themselves into a hopeful state rather than a realistic state," said Gerard Lane, equity strategist at Shore Capital.
MSCI's world equity index, which has steadily risen over the past five weeks on optimism a budget deal would clear the way for stronger growth in 2013, was steady at 341.80 points, not far from levels last seen in July 2011.
In Europe, the FTSEurofirst 300 index briefly touched a new, 19-month peak of 1,143.04 points, before slipping back to be unchanged at 1,141.94.
London's FTSE 100, Paris's CAC-40 and Frankfurt's DAX were all with 0.1pc of opening levels, though a weaker Wall Street start was suggested by a slight drop in futures for the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones index.
The wrangling over the US budget has grown more heated after Republican leaders said they would push ahead with their own plan despite signs of strains within their own party and the opposition of Democratic President Barack Obama.
Hopes remain high that policymakers can still reach a deal by year-end, which would be positive for assets that benefit from an improved growth outlook. But few investors were willing to make any fresh bets at this stage.
"Despite the heated rhetoric, we expect a deal on the fiscal cliff to be struck between Democrats and Republicans by the deadline," BNP Paribas analyst Anne-Laure Tremblay said
"This should be mildly positive for risk appetite."
In the currency markets, the Bank of Japan's latest policy move was the main driver of prices. On top of expanding its asset-buying programme, the BOJ said it would review its guidelines for medium- and long-term price stability at its next policy-setting meeting in January - a signal of further easing.
The dollar fell 0.5pc to 83.960 yen after the decision, having hit a 20-month high of 84.62 yen yesterday in anticipation of the central bank's move.
The euro also slid 0.5pc today to be at 111.09 yen retreating from a 16-month high.
The dollar gained more than 6pc against in the past five weeks as investors decided that Japan's new government would push the BOJ into more aggressive easing steps, and many players said there was still scope for further yen weakness.
"In the race to debase and weaken domestic currencies, the BOJ is still running behind the Fed in terms of the scale of asset purchases on both an absolute and relative basis," said Lee Hardman, currency economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi.
The worries over the latest course of events in Washington spread through the commodity markets, stoking concerns about future of demand from the world's biggest consumer.
Brent crude slipped 49 cents to $109.87 a barrel and US oil fell 39 cents to $89.59.
Gold traded at around $1,668.50 an ounce, not far from its a three and a half-month low hit earlier this week of $1,670 an ounce. It is on track for its biggest quarterly drop since the third quarter of 2008 when the financial crisis hit hard.
London copper hit a three-week low, slipping by 0.5pc to $7,885 a tonne. That extended losses in the previous session, when prices had dropped by more than 1pc.