By David Gaffen
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Equity markets worldwide fell for the first time in four days on Thursday, the final day of a roller-coaster first quarter that has hammered the dollar and the pound but helped gold and bonds to big gains.
March closed on a subdued note after a volatile quarter that saw investors vacillate between calm and panic. Oil prices, the source of much concern throughout the quarter, were a touch higher as investors looked for clarity over a possible agreement by major oil-producing nations to reduce supply.
The dollar hovered near seven-week lows against the euro. It has fallen this week on reduced expectations for near-term interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve, particularly after comments from Fed Chair Janet Yellen.
U.S. oil futures edged lower, slipping in late trading to lose 0.4 percent to $38.15 a barrel, after another report of record U.S. stockpiles, while China was put on a downgrade warning by S&P.
This quarter “has all been about the three C’s: commodities, China and central banks,” said Aberdeen Asset Management investment committee member Kevin Daly.
When oil hit $27 a barrel in mid-January there were “pretty dark” predictions for the global economy, Daly said, but the rebound in crude, China and ECB stimulus and the Federal Reserve cooling rate hike expectations had all bolstered confidence.
Wall Street was sleepy one day ahead of key monthly labor market data. In the span of three months, the S&P 500 erased an 11 percent fall, one of its worst-ever starts to a year, and is now set to end the quarter with modest gains.
The S&P 500 dipped 0.2 percent to 2,059.74; it ended the quarter up about 0.8 percent.
Safe-haven gold has been the big winner of 2016 so far. It ticked up to $1,231 an ounce and has jumped a whopping 16 percent this quarter, its best run in nearly 30 years. [GOL/]
The euro rose to $1.1382 and the yen hovered at 112.53 to the greenback, leaving the six-currency dollar index on track for its biggest monthly fall since April 2015 and largest quarterly drop in five years.
Bond yields declined during the quarter as investors reduced expectations for rate increases from the Federal Reserve and central banks in Europe and Japan added to stimulus efforts. The U.S. Barclays Aggregate bond index has returned 2.78 percent in the first quarter.
European markets were hit, with shares down 1 percent on Thursday. Euro zone inflation data was muted, underscoring just why the European Central Bank is cranking up its stimulus efforts.
Sterling has also taken a pounding this year as concerns have grown about a potential British exit, or ‘Brexit’, from the European Union. It barely budged on Thursday but has seen its biggest quarterly tumble in 6-1/2 years against the euro.
This year’s turbulent start pushed MSCI’s benchmark emerging market equity index down 14 percent by the time it bottomed on Jan. 21.
But fast forward 2-1/2 months and EM stocks are up 20 percent. Currencies from the Russian rouble to the Brazilian real have surged and struggling parts of Africa have some of the best-performing bonds in the world.
Japan’s Nikkei sagged 0.7 percent on Thursday to an 11 percent quarterly loss, having been slammed by the 7-percent surge in the yen against the dollar.
Shanghai shares have been an even bigger loser, having dropped about 15 percent since the start of the year.
(Additional reporting by Marc Jones in London and A. Ananthalakshmi in Singapore; Editing by Nick Zieminski and James Dalgleish)