Europe buckles up for ECB 'liftoff' signal

Europe buckles up for ECB 'liftoff' signal
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LONDON (June 9): Investors buckled up on Thursday for the European Central Bank’s signal that it is ready to raise its interest rates for the first time in a decade, while the yen weakened to a new 20-year low on bets the Bank of Japan will lag way behind.

There was little else worth focusing on. How fast the ECB will now lift the euro zone's subzero borrowing costs has dominated markets for months, coming as part of the most widespread tightening of global monetary policy in decades. 

Bond dealers marked the moment by pushing Germany's 10-year government bond yield — the main proxy for European borrowing rates — to its highest level in nearly eight years. Stocks slipped nearly 1%. The euro barely budged. 

With euro zone inflation at a record-high 8.1% and broadening quickly, the ECB has already flagged a series of moves, including also ending its long-running asset buying programme at the end of this month. Details will be crucial though.

"The bar has been set pretty high by the drum beat of recent comments (from top ECB policymakers)," said Saxo Bank's head of FX strategy John Hardy, referring to signals that rates will start rising next month, possibly even by a meaty half percent.

"So it is about A) do they clear that bar, and B) how does market react.... I don't think they (ECB) will want to take anything off the table."

Losses in European stocks were broad-based and led by miners, while the energy sector was the sole gainer, up 0.4% as oil prices remained above an eyewatering US$123 a barrel even as China imposed new Covid lockdown measures in Shanghai. 

Asian stocks had fallen overnight and Wall Street futures were flat, although it was more to do with the renewed rise in both global bond yields and the US dollar that will ultimately mean tighter financial conditions.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was closing down 0.65%, with Australian shares down 1.2% and Seoul's KOSPI 0.5% lower. Hong Kong's Hang Seng turned around from small gains to fall 0.75% and Chinese A-shares fell 1%

"It's classic pre-central-bank-meeting price action," said Matt Simpson, senior market analyst at City Index in Sydney, again referring to the 1145 GMT and 1230 GMT and ECB announcement and news conference. 

"It's the most exciting meeting since (Christine Lagarde) has been at the helm, since Draghi was here — 'whatever it takes'."

Yen lows

The other major focus for global investors was on the backsliding Japanese yen, which dropped to a 20-year low against the US dollar of 134.56 before regaining a little ground. It is also nearing crucial levels against China's yuan which are highly sensitive for Asia.

The Japanese currency has been weighed down by a widening policy divergence, with the Bank of Japan remaining one of the few global central banks not signalling higher interest rates at present. 

The global dollar index, which is up nearly 7% this year, was holding steady at 102.51, and the euro was flat ahead of the ECB meeting at US$1.0719 and testing 1.05 against the neighbouring Swiss franc.

The US 10-year yield ticked up on Thursday to 3.0344% from a US close of 3.029% on Wednesday and the two-year yield climbed to 2.7887% compared with a US close of 2.774%.

Adding to concern over European inflation, data showed the euro zone economy grew much faster in the first quarter than the previous three months, despite the war in Ukraine. 

As investors guess at the size and pace of ECB tightening, they are also awaiting US consumer price data on Friday which the White House has said it expects to be "elevated". Economists expect annual inflation to be 8.3%, according to a Reuters poll.

On Wednesday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 0.81%, the S&P 500 lost 1.08% and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 0.73%.

"Over the last two weeks, trading has been in a very narrow range and also based on very low volumes," analysts at ING said in a note.

"Previous instances of this range trading on low volumes have usually preceded a sharp down-shift," they cautioned, adding that the ECB meeting and Friday's US price data were likely "catalysts for a more bearish outlook".