Wall Street bounces back, London holds firm

DAVID USBORNE

New York

TOM STEVENSON

London

Wall Street staged a dramatic bounce-back in share prices and an impressive recovery in the bond market yesterday.

Though still nervous after the steep slumps of last Friday, US markets showed unexpected resilience. The Dow Jones industrial average closed 110.55 points higher, recouping almost two thirds of what was lost on Friday.

The New York recovery came after London held the line in the face of overnight panic selling on Asian bourses yesterday, with the FT-SE 100 index of leading shares falling just 35.8 points to close at 3674.5. That compared with a lunchtime low of 81.2 points down and weekend fears that markets were preparing for a re-run of 1987's meltdown.

In New York, after some early gyrations, the market climbed consistently all day in spite of new economic figures showing unexpected gains in new single-family house sales in January. The day was in stark contrast to Friday, when the 171-point slide in the industrial average, the third biggest in its history, sparked fears that a more significant correction was in the offing. Many analysts had been predicting a retreat of 10 per cent before the selling was over.

Friday's retreat had been sparked by surprisingly strong February jobs reports, including a drop in the unemployment rate from 5.8 to 5.5 per cent. The figures in turn buried hopes of any further cut in interest rates by the US Federal Reserve. Bonds suffered their worst day in almost two decades.

By the evidence of yesterday, most investors seem to have taken the view that the trend on Wall Street remains upwards. "The market is proving this morning that it's trying to go higher," remarked William LeFevre of the brokerage firm Ehrenkrantz King Nussbaum. "Friday was not the end of the a bull market and the beginning of something bad."

In staging its recovery, Wall Street seemed to shrug off the latest economic statistics that showed a 4.2 per cent increase in sales of single-family houses in January, further suggesting a strengthening of the economy. Analysts had expected house sales to retreat.

Even so, Wall Street is likely to remain jumpy all week. Attention will be closely focused on the bond market, which is likely to remain highly sensitive to any further evidence of a strengthening of economic growth. Also critical, will be US inflation figures due to be released on Thursday and Friday.

"I think we're entering a much more interesting market, a much more volatile market," commented Ricky Harrington, an analyst at Interstate-Johnson Lane. "I believe the market is changing character."

Steven Leuthard of the Leuthard Asset Allocation Fund noted: "This isn't a bear market, but there is one out there somewhere".

Dealers in Europe had braced themselves for another sell-off yesterday but there was no feeling that a repeat of the 1987 global crash was on the cards.

In London, a futures trader on Liffe said: "I don't think this market is trading with a lot of rhyme or reason at the moment."

Bob Semple, markets analyst at NatWest Securities, poured cold water on the worst scare stories: "There was an over-reaction on Friday and there has now been time to reflect. There is no real crash on the cards. If people had been in a really bearish mood, they would have alighted on the strong US housing data as another reason to sell. I'm reasonably sanguine about the outlook."

But in the Far East, the combination of Wall Street's fall and the heightening tension between China and Taiwan wreaked havoc on Asian stock markets. Hardest hit was Hong Kong, which suffered its worst fall since 1987, after the Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen said Taiwan's first direct presidential elections on 23 March were part of a plot to win independence for the island.

Peking takes over control of Hong Kong from Britain in July 1997, and the renewed tension over Taiwan has done nothing to calm local investors' fears about the handover.

The Hang Seng index of Hong Kong's blue chips plunged 7.3 per cent as sellers focused on fresh Chinese military exercises off Taiwan. It closed 820.34 points lower at 10,397.45, the second largest one-day points loss and the Hong Kong market's fifth biggest percentage collapse.

Tokyo, which had opened relatively firmly, took its cue from Hong Kong, falling to the year's closing low of 19,796.29, a drop of almost 2 per cent as buyers remained sidelined by worries over the budget impasse as well as Wall Street. Shares in Singapore and Sydney also lost more than 3 per cent.

Comment, page 19

What the pundits say

Nick Knight, Nomura

`A bounce on Wall Street after the decline was pretty inevitable. But it might have been better in the long run if there had been a genuine bloodletting now. If the market goes up now there is a danger that people will take the chance to sell - there could be a reaction to the reaction to the action.

Bob Semple, NatWest Markets

`There was an overreaction on Friday and there has now been time to reflect. There is no real crash on the cards. If people had been in a really bearish mood, they would have alighted on the strong US housing data as another reason to sell. I'm reasonably sanguine about the outlook.

Richard Davidson,

Morgan Stanley

`This is not like 1987, or 1994 when the bond market crashed. The outlook for the markets is not as negative as it was then nor as negative as some people now think it is. There is still scope for European interest rates to fall, and they are certainly not going to go up.

A grinding downward move in the US need not hit the European markets. There have been 11 corrections of more than 10 per cent in the US in the past quarter century. Europe has gone up in 5 cases. When it went down it was either because of a global event like the invasion of Kuwait or a short sharp correction like the 1987 crash.

Corey Miller, Societe Generale

`There is a lot of volatility in the markets because we are at that stage of the economic cycle where prospects are hazier. There is a risk of another correction as long as there is that volatility. But the fundamentals are still very good - we have a steady growth, low inflation environment. There is a lot of underlying strength in the US economy.

Trevor Greetham, Merrill Lynch

`Last Friday's jobs figure was a rogue number, yet the market jumped on it as evidence that the US economy had turned on a sixpence. We think the economy will slow and expect further interest rate cuts. The worry for equities is that earnings growth will be affected, disappointing investors and there is a lot of nervous money invested on Wall Street.

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