European shares test two-year highs, yen volatile before BOJ
LONDON (Reuters) - European shares inched towards two-year highs on Monday, as a political attempt to break a budget impasse in the United States and expectations of aggressive Japanese stimulus bolstered the appetite for shares.
U.S. House Republican leaders said on Friday they would seek to pass a three-month extension of federal borrowing authority in the coming days to buy time for the Democrat-controlled Senate to pass a plan to shrink budget deficits.
European shares were supported by the news, but with no clear response from the Democrats and a thin session expected due to a market holiday in the United States, the impact on assets such as bonds and commodities was limited.
By 1500 GMT London's FTSE 100, Paris's CAC-40 and Frankfurt's DAX were up 0.4 to 0.6 percent, leaving the pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 within touching distance of a two-year high and MSCI's world index steady at a 20-month high.
Expectations that the Bank of Japan will deliver a bold monetary easing plan at the end of its two-day meeting on Tuesday also supported shares and created choppy conditions in the currency market.
According to sources familiar with the BoJ's thinking, the government of new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the central bank have agreed to set 2 percent inflation as a new target, supplanting a softer 1 percent 'goal'.
The yen, which has fallen 13 percent against the dollar over the last two months as the shift in Japanese policy has taken shape, touched a new 2-1/2 year low in early trading but then firmed as traders cut short positions given the BOJ has often fallen short of market expectations.
"Investors are being mindful that the moves we have seen over the course of the last month or two are just worth locking in at least until we understand how the BOJ are really going to play in the future," said Jeremy Stretch, head of currency strategy at CIBC World Markets.
Japanese equities have surged in recent weeks in anticipation of a more aggressive monetary policy stance, but not everyone is happy.
The slump in the yen has prompted Russia's deputy central bank governor to warn of a new round of 'currency wars' and the medium-term risk of running ultra-loose monetary policies is likely to be a theme of the World Economic Forum in Davos, which opens on Wednesday.
With little in the way of economic data or debt issuance and U.S. markets shut for the Martin Luther King public holiday, the rest of the day was expected to be a fairly quiet for investors.
As the first European finance ministers' meeting of the year got under way, most euro zone government bonds were trading virtually flat and the euro was steady at $1.3316.
Market pressure on Europe is now less intense thanks to the European Central Bank's promise to prevent a collapse of the euro. Policymakers are set to discuss Cyprus's plight and plans for the euro zone's bailout fund to directly recapitalise banks.
French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said as he arrived at the Brussels meeting that a proper recapitalisation strategy was very important.
"Negotiations will be complex, and a final decision is unlikely to emerge soon. Risks for sovereign spreads in the periphery should be limited, but we have some concerns that the long-term solution may fall short of what a real banking union needs," said UniCredit economist Marco Valli.
The efforts by Republican lawmakers to give the U.S. government leeway to pay its bills for another three months dented demand for safe haven assets and pushed German government bond yields near the top of this year's range.
The U.S. Treasury needs congressional authorisation to raise the current $16.4 trillion limit on U.S. debt sometime between mid-February and early March. A failure to achieve that could lead to a debt default.
"This is part of the political game, it remains to be seen whether the Democrats will accept it," KBC strategist Piet Lammens said, adding that investors' working scenario was that a solution to raise the ceiling would be eventually found anyway.
One of the key factors that drove 2-year German yields higher last week was also the prospect of sizeable early repayments of the 1 trillion euros euro zone banks took from the ECB roughly a year ago.
The central bank will publish on Friday how much banks plan to return at the optional first repayment date on January 30. A Reuters poll on Monday showed around 100 billion euros are expected to be repaid although some predict it could be as high as 250 billion.
German markets showed no reaction after the country's centre-left opposition party edged Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives from power in a regional election on Sunday, reviving its flagging hopes for September's national election.
The Bundesbank's latest report delivered an upbeat message on the country's economy, saying a recent slump should be short-lived and may have already bottomed out.
Oil prices took their cues from a report in the United States at the end of last week that showed consumer sentiment at its weakest in a year as a result of the uncertainty surrounding the country's debt crisis.
Concerns about demand overshadowed supply disruption fears reinforced by the Islamist militant attack and hostage-taking at a gas plant in Algeria, a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Brent futures were down by 40 cents to $111.47 per barrel by mid-afternoon. U.S. crude shed 43 cents to $95.13 per barrel after touching a four-month high last week.
"The over-riding fundamental feeling in the market is that crude oil is over-supplied in 2013," said Tony Nunan, an oil risk manager at Mitsubishi.
Last week's data showing a pick-up in the Chinese economy helped keep growth-sensitive copper prices steady at roughly $8,056 an ounce. Gold, meanwhile, reversed Friday's losses to stand at $1,688 an ounce.
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