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US Stocks Seen Down on Italy Fears

Wednesday, 27 Feb 2013 | 6:26 AM ET

U.S. stock index futures signaled a lower open on Wednesday, pulling back from gains seen on Tuesday and pressured further by concerns that political deadlock in Italy could reignite the euro zone crisis.


European shares pared gains in mid-morning trade after an Italian bond auction saw yields for Italy's 10-year debt reach their highest levels since October 2012. The country's general election this week saw no political party gain a parliamentary majority, raising the risk of prolonged instability.


In a morning note on Wednesday, Tobias Blattner, a euro zone economist at Daiwa Capital Markets, saw little grounds for optimism regarding Italy.


"Even if a Bersani minority-led government or a grand coalition between Berlusconi and Bersani ultimately emerges from the elections, it will be a weak government that is unlikely to survive for long as the experience of the past year (decades) or so suggests. So, what seemed to have emerged as the smallest common denominator, to avoid new elections, looks ultimately inevitable to us," Blattner wrote.


However, global market sentiment was boosted by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's speech on Tuesday, which helped soothe fears the Fed might end its asset purchases earlier than forecast.


In his semi-annual report to the Senate Committee late in the day, Bernanke said the Fed will continue its quantitative easing (QE) program until clear signs of an economic recovery are visible.


"There was little in the way of surprise yesterday by Chairman Bernanke who, as expected, gave a stern defense of QE as an important monetary policy tool in the current crisis," wrote Derek Halpenny, European head of global markets research at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, in a note on Wednesday.


Bernanke also urged lawmakers to avoid the sharp spending cuts due to bite at the beginning of March, which he warned could create a "significant headwind" for the economic recovery when combined with earlier tax increases.


Meanwhile, investors will eye property market indicators out on Wednesday, after Tuesday's strong home prices and sales data.


First up is the Mortgage Bankers Association's (MBA) mortgage index for the week ending February 23, out at 7 a.m. New York time. The index fell by 1.7 percent in the prior week.


Then at 10 a.m., the National Association of Realtors will issue pending home sales for January, measuring contracts signed but not closed. In February, sales fell by 4.3 percent.


On Tuesday, the S&P Case-Shiller composite index of 20 cities posted a 6.8 percent year-on-year rise, its best gain since 2006. In addition, the Commerce Department reported new home sales reached 437,000 in January, the highest since July 2008.


In another hint of a resurging property market, Reuters report on Wednesday that "jumbo" mortgages - those loans, typically over $417,000, that are too big to qualify for purchase by federal agencies - are back. Reuters also said that sales of properties worth between $75,000 and $1 million are up 38.7 percent year-on-year, according to the National Association of Realtors.


In addition, durable goods orders data for January will be out at 8:30 a.m. Economists polled by Briefing.com forecast a 3.5 percent decline in orders, versus a 4.3 percent rise in December.


Amna Asaf, a North America economist at independent research firm Capital Economics, said Boeing's weak orders in January point to a slowdown.


"With Boeing taking only two orders of aircraft in January, down from 183 in December, durable goods orders data should be weak, even allowing for the normal seasonal swings at the turn of the year. We also anticipate a sharp drop back in defence aircraft orders," Asaf wrote in a note on Tuesday afternoon.


"Excluding transport, core orders probably fell back as well. The recent strength in core orders has far surpassed what we would have expected based on the survey evidence and, despite being seasonally adjusted, core orders tend to fall in the first month of each quarter."


Crude oil inventories for last week will be released by the Energy Department at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday. Inventories rose by 4.1 million in the prior week. Brent futures held steady near $113 a barrel on Wednesday after the Federal Reserve's affirmation of its commitment to monetary stimulus renewed hopes of a revival in demand growth in the world's biggest oil consumer.


The Treasury will auction $29 billion of 7-year notes on Wednesday, with results available in the afternoon.


Companies posting fourth quarter results before the start of U.S. trade on Wednesday include Target, Dollar Tree and TJX.


Earlier in the day, Anheuser-Busch Inbev forecast a weak start to the year in the U.S. and Brazil, after posting slightly lower-than-expected earnings in the fourth quarter of 2012. The Belgian brewer is the world's biggest beer maker and produces Budweiser and Stella Artois.


Meanwhile, Franco-German defense firm EADS predicted higher profits in 2013 as it confirmed an upswing in 2012, driven by efforts to cut costs, and strong deliveries of passenger jets. EADS shares rose by around five percent on the news. U.S. rival Boeing posted results in January that also topped expectations.


- By CNBC's Katy Barnato