Markets take Fed tapering in stride

Associated Press
An investor looks at the stock price monitor at a private securities company Thursday Dec. 19, 2013 in Shanghai, China. Asian markets were mixed Thursday after investors took the U.S. Federal Reserve's decision to trim its stimulus as a vote of confidence the American economy is strengthening. China's benchmark Shanghai Composite Index shed 0.1 percent to 2,146.37 after a rise in money market interest rates pushed up the cost of stock trading. (AP Photo)
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LONDON (AP) — Investors around the world were largely unfazed Thursday by the surprise decision by the U.S. Federal Reserve to reduce its monetary stimulus. Most breathed a sigh of relief that the decision was accompanied by a commitment to low interest rates for a while yet.

In fact, stocks in Europe and a number of markets in Asia followed the U.S.'s lead — the S&P 500 closed at a record high Wednesday — and recorded strong gains. The dollar is also solid, having recouped some recent losses, particularly against the euro, in the aftermath of the Fed's decision. However, jitters over the impact on emerging economies kept some markets in check.

After months of speculation that it was about to embark on so-called "tapering," the Fed finally began to end its latest asset-purchase program. Policymakers decided to cut from January $5 billion each from the Fed's monthly purchases of U.S. Treasurys and mortgage backed securities. It also said it "will likely reduce the pace of asset purchases in further measured steps at future meetings."

However, mindful of the impact on markets, the Fed emphasized that its main interest rate would remain low until U.S. unemployment falls below the 6.5 percent threshold. Currently, U.S. unemployment stands at 7 percent.

"These reassurances around interest rates effectively offset the negative implications on the markets of less asset purchases, leaving plenty of reason to continue to buy in this cheap money environment," said Craig Erlam, market analyst at Alpari.

"As long as the Fed continues to stand by this promise, we may avoid a sharp pull back in the markets," he added.

In Europe, the FTSE 100 index of leading British shares closed up 1.4 percent at 6,584.70 while Germany's DAX rose 1.7 percent to 9,335.74. The CAC-40 in France ended 1.6 percent higher at 4,177.03.

In the U.S., trading was fairly muted after Wednesday's advance — the Dow Jones industrial average was flat at 16,168 while the broader S&P 500 index fell 0.1 percent to 1,808.

Even since May when Fed chairman Ben Bernanke mooted the idea of tapering, markets around the world have been volatile as investors fretted over what would happen. The money generated by the stimulus, in its various guises over the past few years, has flowed through global markets, sending many stock indexes to all-time, or multi-year, highs. Emerging markets have also prospered as investors sought out potential returns abroad given low U.S. interest rates.

The point of the stimulus was to keep a lid on U.S. borrowing rates so the world's largest economy could recover faster from the calamity of the 2008 financial crisis. Now that many economic indicators are pointing the right way, Fed policymakers have given a vote of confidence to the U.S. economy.

Other central banks around the world have followed a similar path to the Fed, but only the Bank of England appears to be anywhere near a position of scaling back from the extraordinary policy measures that have been put in place over the past few years. The European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan, for example, are still expected to enact further stimulus in the year ahead to shore up their respective economies.

In the developing world, the reduction in the Fed's stimulus has a direct impact. While a number of governments complained that the stimulus was causing money to flood into their economies in search of higher returns, thereby pushing up their currencies and making their exports more expensive, the tapering may prompt uncertainty and push them to raise interest rates to support their currencies.

Emerging market currencies, such as the Brazilian real and the Mexican peso and the Turkish lira, have been on the defensive in the aftermath of the Fed policy.

Concerns over the fallout were evident in the performance in Asian stock markets earlier, where the post-decision verdict was less clear-cut.

"The resultant threat posed to Asian and emerging market finance costs ensured a mixed performance from Asian equities," said Jeremy Batstone-Carr, director of private client research at stockbrokers Charles Stanley.

Solid performances were recorded by Tokyo's Nikkei 225 index, the region's biggest market, which closed up 1.7 percent to 15,859.22. Sydney's S&P ASX 200 added 2.1 percent to 5,202.20.

However, China's benchmark Shanghai Composite Index shed 0.9 percent to 2,127.79 as a rise in money market interest rates pushed up trading costs and raised fears of an economic slowdown. And Hong Kong's Hang Seng declined 1.1 percent to 22,888.75 after analysts warned the Fed's change meant banks there might see an outflow of deposits. The territory's chief central banker warned of possible "market volatility" and said institutions have been warned to avoid excessive lending.

In the currency markets, the dollar strengthened in the wake of the Fed news and was up 0.2 percent Thursday against the euro at $1.3660. The dollar was flat at 104.15 yen, having earlier hit a five-year high of 104.34 yen.

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Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this story.

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