European markets flat, Asia gains

May 25, 2009 1:54:31 PM PDT
European stocks searched for direction Monday, closing little changed amid ongoing concerns about the sustainability of recent market gains. Asian shares rose, shrugging off reports of a nuclear test by North Korea. Germany's DAX index of blue chips closed down 0.3 percent at 4918.45, while the French CAC-40 index rose 0.2 percent to 3236.16.

The London and New York stock exchanges were closed for national holidays, a bank holiday in Britain and Memorial Day in the United States.

Shares in Europe recovered in the afternoon after falling after the open on news that that closely watched Ifo institute's survey of German business confidence rose less than expected in May.

Sluggish demand weighed on construction and manufacturing in Europe's largest economy as the index increased to 84.2 points in May from 83.7 points in April.

In France, drug maker Sanofi-Aventis was among the CAC-40 gainers, up 1.6 percent on news of a $190 million order for swine flu vaccine from the U.S. government.

That was the second consecutive increase since March, when the indicator hit a 26-year low of 82.2 points, but short of the 85.9 points Ifo had expected and the 85 points predicted by UniCredit.

Global stocks have been seeking direction after solid gains in recent weeks. Backward-looking data such as growth and manufacturing output have been dismal, but some indicators of future activity have been more positive. Investors were looking ahead to key U.S. economic reports this week, including home sales, big-ticket manufactured goods and consumer confidence.

"I think people are catching their breath and seeing how things go," said Gerhard Schwarz, head of equities strategy at UniCredit. "We have of course seen an improvement in several leading indicators ... the big question is, how sustainable is this improvement?"

Asian markets retreated midday after North Korea announced that it had successfully carried out an underground nuclear test. The country's official Korean Central News Agency called it "part of measures to bolster its nuclear deterrent for self-defense."

But investors soon tempered their reaction, turning their attention to domestic issues and the upcoming week's economic reports for further clues about the outlook for the U.S. and global economies.

South Korea's benchmark Kospi index erased nearly all its losses. It plunged as much as 6.3 percent before bouncing back to end just 0.2 percent lower at 1,400.90. The won also recovered from a drop against the dollar.

Tokyo's benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average rose 121.19 points, or 1.3 percent, to 9,347.00 on a slightly weaker yen and gains by steel and drug makers. Hong Kong's Hang Seng index rose 0.4 percent to 17,121.82.

The region's markets have grown accustomed to such maneuvering by North Korea, said Linus Yip, a strategist at First Shanghai Securities Ltd. in Hong Kong.

"For the South Korean market, it's just an excuse for the market to make a correction because markets have shot up too much recently," Yip said. "But I don't see any great impact in other Asian markets."

Japanese electronic retailers climbed after The Nikkei financial daily said home appliance sales surged over the weekend. As part of its economic stimulus efforts, the government kicked off its "eco points" program to boost spending on environmentally friendly electronics. Bic Camera Inc. shot up 7.5 percent and rival Best Denki Co. surged almost 17 percent.

Markets in mainland China and Singapore - both down earlier - also rose into positive territory.

Thailand's benchmark index fell after figures showed that Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy contracted 7.1 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier.

Wall Street slid Friday as early gains built on better earnings reports from retailers faded amid anxiety about the outlook for the American economy, the world's largest. The Dow fell 14.81, or 0.2 percent, to 8,277.32. The S&P 500 index slipped 1.33, or 0.2 percent, to 887.00, and the Nasdaq composite index lost 0.2 percent to 1,692.01.

Oil prices slipped, with benchmark crude for July delivery down 43 cents to $61.24 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The dollar traded flat at 94.79 yen, barely up from 94.76 late Friday. The euro was unchanged at $1.3994 after briefly rising above $1.40.