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Daily Briefing: Flurry on the farm - questions grow over Fillon

LONDON (Reuters) - There is much agitation in French political circles over struggling presidential candidate Francois Fillon's decision just announced to postpone a planned visit to the annual Paris agricultural fair today.

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Such visits -- with the obligatory photo calls of politicians caressing prize cattle -- are still seen as rites of passage for all candidates despite the dwindling size of the population that has anything to do with farms. Marine Le Pen made her visit yesterday.

Fillon looked to have shrugged off allegations his wife was drawing a handsome parliamentary salary for very little work, but most recent polls show him squarely in third place -- and not making it to the crucial run-off.

Britain’s upper house of parliament today debates inserting a guarantee of EU citizens’ future rights in Britain into the bill to trigger formal divorce talks with the European Union. A victory for those pushing for such a guarantee would not necessarily delay the timetable but would be an embarrassment for the government, which has resisted this measure.

Before that, there are lots of opportunities for new soundings on the British economy with PMI factory read-outs for February seen strong and fresh mortgage and consumer credit lending figures from the Bank of England. Separately, British house prices picked up speed in February, recovering from the weakest month for more than a year in January, mortgage lender Nationwide said.


It was the Fed rather than Trump that electrified world markets overnight. March 15 rate hike probabilities have soared to 65 pct from 30 pct yesterday as New York Fed chief Dudley talked of a ‘compelling’ case for further rate increases and San Francisco Fed chief Williams, albeit a non-voting member this year, said a move this month was up for ‘serious consideration.”

Although the jump in the futures reading may have something to do with new month contracts, U.S. Treasury yields and the dollar have responded instantly - helped by surprisingly strong gains in February US consumer confidence and Chicago-area business survey readings out on Tuesday. Two-year Treasury yields hit their highest since mid-December, the gap between 2-year US and German equivalents hit its widest since 2000 at 220 basis points, the 10-year gap out moved out to its widest in two months and the dollar index has jumped 0.6 pct.

On the other hand, the U.S. yield curve has flattened to its lowest since the day after the election – raising some questions about how markets think the U.S. economy might take stepped up rate hikes over time. Euro/dollar has slipped back to $1.0530 while dollar/yen vaulted $113. Fed chief Yellen’s speech this Friday will now likely seal this month’s expectations one way or another.

Trump’s much anticipated congressional address, meantime, came up short on details for tax cuts yet again, with the only takeaways for markets being a restatement of his existing plan for $1 trillion dollars of unspecified infrastructure spending, a more conciliatory tone overall and a nod to considering Congress’ border tax proposals – something that may have helped the dollar higher at the margins.

Mexico’s peso recouped some losses as Trump declined to insist Mexico would have to pay for his promised border wall with the country. Curiously, the stock market appears to see the glass half full on the Trump plans yet again. S&P500 futures are up after the speech, despite the Fed speculation and after a lacklustre pre-speech session on Tuesday.

Unlucky for some, the Dow Jones failed to record a record 13 straight gains and closed down a fraction. Asia markets are broadly positive, with Tokyo outperforming on the back of the dollar/yen move higher and the Nikkei closing up more than 1 pct. Jakarta stocks bucked the trend after surprisingly poor business survey readings there.

European stocks are set to open slightly higher again, with final PMI business sentiment readings assessed alongside another busy earnings slate. Germany auctions 10-year Bunds later, but the bigger potential market mover may be German states’ and national inflation numbers through the morning. Eurozone February inflation is likely to have returned to the ECB’s target of 2 pct last month, stoking some questions about the appropriateness of the central bank’s ongoing QE campaign. Brent crude prices were firmer at $56.45.

Editing by Richard Lough