Poor first quarter ends on a high note as stocks leap

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks steadied on Thursday, after a woeful week for major technology companies, even as global equities careened towards their first quarterly drop in two years.

The German share price index, DAX board, is seen at the stock exchange in Frankfurt, Germany, March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Tilman Blasshofer

Shares tracked by the 47-country MSCI index glided 0.86 percent higher, with Facebook Inc, Apple Inc and Google parent Alphabet Inc retaking the market’s leadership mantle.

Despite equities’ gains, safe-haven bonds also advanced in price.

The volatile give-and-take during the week and quarter would seem to set the table for tense months ahead as buy-the-dip bulls look for corporate earnings to validate the market’s current levels and short-selling bears work to expose investors’ complacency.

Yet David Kelly, chief global strategist at JPMorgan Chase & Co’s funds division, said he is optimistic that markets have clarified the effects of a large U.S. tax cut and the prospect for higher interest rates, factors he says challenged markets during the first quarter.

“It’s not that the uncertainties have gone away on higher rates or lower taxes, but I think we’ve grown accustomed to them, and that should lay a foundation for investors to put more money to work,” he said.

Economic data on Thursday showed U.S. consumer spending rising only marginally, but the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits dropped to a more than 45-year low last week. Monthly inflation readings moderated.

Those statistics helped keep downward price swings at bay on Thursday after a turbulent start to 2018 in financial markets that is set to end one of the longest quarterly bull runs and included the biggest-ever rise in Wall Street’s “fear gauge,” the CBOE Volatility Index.

A “melt-up” that sent the MSCI’s “all-country” world share index up more than 7 percent in January suddenly melted away as tensions over global trade escalated, turmoil deepened in the White House and market-leading technology firms wobbled on fears of regulation and other issues. The index is down more than 1 percent in price terms this year.

Now, the Dow, S&P 500, FTSE, Nikkei and scores of other major indexes are all also down for the year. And there was little place to hide, with U.S. bond returns also in the red for the quarter.

On Thursday, by contrast, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 254.69 points, or 1.07 percent, to 24,103.11, the S&P 500 gained 35.87 points, or 1.38 percent, to 2,640.87 and the Nasdaq Composite added 114.22 points, or 1.64 percent, to 7,063.45.

In Asia, Japan’s Nikkei rose 0.6 percent, while Shanghai closed up 1.2 percent and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng recovered from an early wobble to add 0.2 percent. The pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 index rose 0.44 percent.

Oil continued its march higher. Benchmark Brent crude rose 1 percent, advancing its gains for the quarter and sidestepping data the day prior showing a surprise build in U.S. crude stockpiles.

Many markets across Europe and the Americas will be closed on the final weekday of the quarter in observance of Good Friday.

A monthly markets poll by Reuters showed trade war and tech sector worries have spooked global investors into cutting equity exposure to a four-month low and holdings of U.S. stocks to the lowest in nearly two years.

Roger Jones, the head of equities at London & Capital, said he hopes the equity market’s selloff from its highs is not prolonged.

“The longer this goes, the higher the chance it will start to affect the man in the street,” said Jones.

Benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury notes rose in price to yield 2.741 percent, from 2.775 percent late on Wednesday.

That market action pushed the gap between short- and long-dated Treasury yields to its tightest in a decade. Some investors see the narrowing as a sign the economy will sputter. In addition to that curve flattening, the quarter was marked by a rise in short-term borrowing costs, reflected in the soaring London interbank offered rate (Libor).

(For a graphic on 'Global assets in 2018' click

(For a graphic on 'Global currencies vs. dollar' click

(For a graphic on 'All Country World Index Market Cap' click

Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in New York; Additional reporting by Marc Jones in London; Editing by Bernadette Baum and James Dalgleish