North American markets opened lower, still bothered by the minutes released Wednesday from the latest Federal Reserve meeting that hinted its extraordinary stimulus measures may come to an end sooner than many had anticipated. A slightly worse-than-expected reading on U.S. jobless claims this morning and an ugly business conditions survey for the euro zone was also weighing on sentiment.
The S&P/TSX composite index was down 56 points, or 0.4 per cent, moments after the open, at 12,657. The resource-heavy index had the additional headwind of considerable weakness in commodity prices today, with the April New York Mercantile Exchange futures contract for oil down $2.22, or 2.3 per cent, to $92.99 (U.S.) per barrel and copper down 1.7 per cent at $3.56 per pound.
While the economically sensitive commodities were suffering the steepest losses, even gold was lower, down by $8.30, or 0.5 per cent, at 1,569 (U.S.) per ounce, and sitting near 8.5-month lows. The precious metal on Wednesday formed a so-called death cross, a bearish technical formation whereby the 50-day moving average falls below the 200-day.
European stock markets are much lower this morning, with most major indexes down between 1.5 and 1.8 per cent as the North American trading day got underway. Similar losses were experienced overnight in Asia, led by a nearly 3 per cent loss in Chinese stocks.
The S&P 500 was down 8 points, or 0.5 per cent, at 1,504 after the index on Wednesday suffered its sharpest decline of the year. The pullback wasn't entirely a surprise given U.S. stock indexes' persistent rise to more than five-year highs this year. The Dow Jones industrial average at the open was down 59 points, or 0.4 per cent, at 13,867.
The Fed minutes sent a clear signal that markets can't rely on monetary stimulus measures forever to boost the economic landscape. Some officials believed that asset purchases - or quantitative easing - should be halted or slowed before U.S. employment picks up. Investors had previously believed that the asset purchases – $85-billion (U.S.) a month – were open-ended, and therefore unlikely to end before the U.S. saw meaningful improvement in its labour market.
Employment figures today from the U.S. further illustrated the slow state of the market's recovery. U.S. initial jobless claims for last week rose 20,000 to 362,000, modestly higher than the 359,000 that was forecast.
But the U.S. also reported flat inflation in January from December, and only a rise of 1.6 per cent from a year earlier, suggesting the Fed has little reason to worry about stimulus measures spurring inflationary pressures.
Meanwhile, in Europe today, new surveys on business conditions in the euro zone unexpectedly worsened, rekindling worries about the economy there. The Flash Eurozone Services PMI, one of the earliest monthly indicators of economic activity, fell in February to 47.3 from 48.6, marking a year below the 50 threshold for growth and confounding expectations for a rise to 49.0. Conditions were not uniform across the euro zone; while firms in Germany sustained a healthy rate of growth, French companies reported some of the worst conditions since the Great Recession in early 2009.
Today is a very busy day on the corporate earnings front in Canada. Here's a rundown of key stocks on the move so far:
Bombardier Inc. reported adjusted net profit of 10 cents per share in the fourth quarter, down from 13 cents a year ago. Analysts' consensus estimate for fourth-quarter EPS was 12 cents. Shares are down about 7 per cent at the open.
Tim Hortons Inc. said it will hike its quarterly dividend by 23.8 per cent and also unveiled a new share repurchase plan today. But revenues remain under pressure, with the company reporting Canadian same-store sales growth of 2.6 per cent in the fourth quarter, down from 5.5 per cent a year ago. Shares are down 3.6 per cent in early trading.
Rona Inc. is laying off 200 managers or 15 per cent of its administrative positions across Canada as the hardware specialist attempts to rebuilt itself into a profitable retailer and distributor. The company posted fourth quarter results that "fell short of our expectations," said Dominique Boies, acting chief executive officer of Rona. Shares are down 2 per cent.
Loblaw Companies Ltd. saw its fourth-quarter profit cut by nearly one-third as it recognized a $61-million restructuring charge that chopped 16 cents per share off the bottom line. Shares are down 0.4 per cent.
Wal-Mart reported fourth-quarter earnings per share of $1.67 versus the consensus estimate of $1.57, but revenues were a little shy of forecasts and its guidance also missed the Street views. It also boosted its dividend. Shares are up 2.3 per cent.
Investigators are probing SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.'s operations in Algeria in a marked expansion of the bribery scandal that has shaken Canada's premier engineering firm. Shares are down 2.4 per cent.
Sony Corp. unveiled the latest edition of its PlayStation console late Wednesday, marking the first major upgrade of the hardware since the PlayStation 3 was released in 2006. Shares are down 2.4 per cent.