LONDON (Reuters) – European shares edged up but the euro eased on Wednesday after testimony from U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that offered little guidance on whether the central bank was moving closer to new stimulus measures.
Bernanke said on Tuesday that economic recovery was being held back by anxiety over Europe’s debt crisis and the path of U.S. fiscal policy, and he expressed unease over a stagnant jobs market.
He added the central bank was considering a range of tools to help the economy but stuck to an earlier message that the Fed was waiting to see if they would be needed.
“Bernanke essentially followed the line from the last Fed meeting, and markets had been expecting a little bit more,” said Ian Stannard, head of European FX Strategy at Morgan Stanley.
“We think major central banks have been disappointing the markets with a more cautious approach to easing despite signs of growth slowing, and this is going to keep risk assets under pressure,” he said.
The single currency edged down 0.1 percent to $1.2278, below Tuesday’s one-week high of $1.2317, but off a two-year low of $1.2162 hit last week.
The dollar was flat against a basket of currencies at 83.048, off last week’s two-year high of 83.829.
“Bernanke did not give any clear signal of policy easing but left the door open to more easing if required. It’s a reiteration of Fed policy from the last meeting but has not really provided fresh impetus to market direction,” said Lee Hardman, currency economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi.
The lack of any clear view on future easing also left oil slightly weaker, with Brent crude slipping under $104 a barrel and U.S. oil down 33 cents at $88.89 a barrel.
Bernanke completes his semi-annual Congressional testimony by addressing the House Financial Services Committee later on Wednesday.
Meanwhile oil markets are awaiting data on crude stockpiles in the United States later in the day from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) to confirm an industry report that said inventories had fallen more than expected.
Equity investors turned their attention to the corporate earnings outlook after some forecast-beating results from major U.S. firms raised expectations that the European reporting season could also surprise markets on the upside.
The pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 index was up 0.3 percent at 1044.68 points in early trade, well within a 2.5 percent trading range of the past week.
Only 9 percent of S&P 500 companies have reported second quarter earnings so far but of these 46 firms, 71.7 percent have beaten analysts’ expectations, 15.2 percent reported earnings in line and only 13 percent reported earnings below forecasts.
Over the past four quarters, 68 percent of companies beat estimates, 10 percent matched and 23 percent missed estimates, according to Thomson Reuters research.
“In Europe the hurdle rate is actually a bit lower than in the U.S. in terms of what we’re expecting from earnings,” said Will Hobbs, equity strategist at Barclays Wealth.
“Europe’s probably not that far away from what we expected at the start of the year … so maybe, just maybe, there’s the potential for Europe to actually outperform the U.S. for a little bit,” he said.
After gains on Wall Street and a weak session in Asia earlier on Wednesday world shares were slightly firmer, up 0.17 percent at 311 points.
PAY TO SAVE
European debt markets were focused on a German auction of up to 5 billion euros of fresh two-year bonds as similar debt on the secondary market currently trades with a negative yield.
Good demand would mean investors are so worried about the European debt crisis they are prepared to pay a premium to the German government to park their cash in its two-year paper, even though it might have a negative yield.
German 10-year yields were steady at 1.23 percent ahead of the sale and two-year debt yielded -4 basis points, up slightly on the day.
The market’s focus was also on Spanish and Italian debt after the Italian Prime Minister expressed “grave concerns” that the country’s autonomous Sicily region may default, reminding investors the euro zone debt outlook remains gloomy.
Spain may face more selling pressure in bond markets ahead of a 3 billion euro auction of paper with maturities up to seven years on Thursday.
Although Madrid’s borrowing costs for 12-month treasury bills fell from a month ago at an auction on Tuesday, they remained high by historic standards.
Spanish 10-year yields were 5 basis points lower at 6.78 percent, while the equivalent Italian debt was four basis points down at 5.99 percent, though traders said there was little volume behind the moves.
(Additional reporting by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Nia Williams; Editing by Will Waterman)
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