Stocks were being traded cautiously across global markets today as investors prepared for the start of the US corporate earnings season and digested a mixed batch of European economic indicators.
The markets will get a feel for the health of corporate America as earnings reports start coming in. Aluminum producer Alcoa Inc. will be the first major company to release results for the fourth quarter of 2012 today after US markets close.
Events during the quarter such as Superstorm Sandy, the presidential election, and worries about the narrowly avoided "fiscal cliff" could lead to some unexpected results.
By midafternoon in Europe, Germany's DAX was 0.1 per cent lower at 7,723.00 while Britain's FTSE 100 was flat at 6,067.30. France's CAC-40 rose 0.4 per cent to 3,720.34. The euro edged down 0.2 per cent to $1.3086.
Wall Street opened slightly lower — both the Dow Jones industrial average and the broader S&P 500 were down 0.1 per cent, to 13,361.29 and 1,459.76.
European investors were torn between two sets of economic indicators.
One showed that unemployment in the 17-country eurozone hit 11.8 per cent in December, a record high and up from 11.7 per cent the previous month. The figure highlights the huge economic challenge facing Europe — although financial market turmoil has subsided, the labor market continues to weaken.
But a separate report was more upbeat, showing business and consumer sentiment in the eurozone rose in December by more than analysts were expecting and that retail sales edged up in November. That suggests that the improvement in financial markets during those months helped economic activity stabilize.
Analysts warned, however, not to expect any imminent turnaround in the economy.
"While it looks like economic activity may have bottomed out around October, any recovery still looks a hard slog," said Howard Archer, an economist with HIS Global Insight.
Earlier, Japan's Nikkei 225 index tumbled 0.9 per cent to 10,508.06 as the yen crept upward against the US dollar. With the dollar down 0.5 per cent at 87.39 yen, some investors sold export shares that had surged as the currency weakened in recent weeks. Toyota Motor Corp. fell 2 per cent while Mazda Motor Corp. plunged 5 per cent. Nintendo Co. shed 3.1 per cent.
Hong Kong's Hang Seng fell 0.9 per cent to 23,111.19. South Korea's Kospi lost 0.7 per cent to 1,997.94. Benchmarks in Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand fell, while Malaysia and the Philippines rose. Mainland Chinese shares were mixed. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 shed 0.6 per cent to 4,690.20.
"Investors are taking a wait-and-see attitude," said Evan Lucas, strategist at IG Markets in Melbourne, adding that many investors went for profits ahead of the release Wednesday of weekly jobless claims in the US and the European Central Bank's rate-setting meeting on Thursday.
"A lot of eyes are watching what will happen in Europe and America over the next couple of days," he said.
Major indexes surged last week after US lawmakers passed a bill to avoid a combination of government spending cuts and tax increases that have come to be known as the fiscal cliff. The deal, however, remains incomplete. Politicians will face another deadline in two months to agree on more spending cuts.
"The looming budget battle in the US has also prompted some hesitancy to buy risk assets," said analysts at Credit Agricole CIB in Hong Kong.
In commodity markets, benchmark crude for February delivery was up 23 cents to $93.42 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.