Picture: WIKI COMMONS
Picture: WIKI COMMONS

New York — Stocks across the globe wavered on Wednesday on fears of trade tensions and questions about US interest rates, while lower-than-expected inventory data sent oil prices into the black after morning losses.

Investors are awaiting the US Federal Reserve’s 6pm GMT decision on monetary policy, with the year’s second interest rate hike almost certain. But market participants are keen to know how many times the Fed will raise rates in 2018, with market pricing "fairly split between three and four hikes", Deutsche Bank strategist Jim Reid wrote in a note to clients.

Amid the uncertainty, Wall Street opened slightly firmer, buoyed by a jump in media stocks after Tuesday’s court ruling allowing AT&T’s $85bn take over of Time Warner — a move expected to trigger a wave of corporate mergers. Shares of the HBO channel owner jumped about 3% after the approval, while AT&T dropped 1.6%.

Overall, stock markets were moving up, but tepidly.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 18.88 points, or 0.07%, to 25,339.61; the S&P 500 gained four points, or 0.14%, to 2,790.85; and the Nasdaq Composite added 42.3 points, or 0.55%, to 7,746.09.

The pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 index rose 0.19%, and MSCI’s gauge of stocks across the globe, which has been stagnating near one-month highs for about a week, gained 0.09%. Equity markets are "finding it difficult to make upward progress despite reasonably good economic data", said Andrew Milligan, head of global strategy at Aberdeen Standard Investments.

Along with the Fed and other key central bank policy meetings this week, fresh fears of protectionism are weighing on stocks and currencies as the US prepares to unveil more tariffs on $50bn worth of Chinese goods.

Emerging market stocks lost 0.37%, while MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan closed 0.58% lower. Trade tensions pressured the Mexican peso and Canadian dollar, which gained 0.46% and 0.35%, respectively, against the greenback.

The dollar index, which measures the US currency against a basket of others, fell 0.2%, with the euro up 0.29% to $1.1777.

Crude inventory lower

Oil prices, which had started the day in the red, rose after a report by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) indicated US crude inventories fell more than anticipated last week, while petrol and distillate stocks surprised with unexpected declines. US crude was up 0.36% to $66.60 a barrel and Brent was last at $76.36, up 0.63% on the day. Petrol futures were up 1.1% to $2.1124 a gallon.

"You tend to want to see draws in petrol early in the summer with driving season, and this is the first number that actually does that ... in three weeks," said Bob Yawger, director of energy futures at Mizuho in New York.

In government bonds, US treasury yields were flat on Wednesday, moving in narrow ranges, with investors firmly focused on the Fed meeting. Benchmark 10-year notes last rose 1/32 in price to yield 2.9535%, from 2.957% late on Tuesday. The 30-year bond last rose 6/32 in price to yield 3.0823%, from 3.092% on Tuesday.

Italian government bonds were in demand, as well, after Paolo Savona, Italy’s new EU affairs minister, said the euro was "indispensable". The comments by Savona, who has previously expressed hostile views on the euro, followed statements earlier in the week by Italy’s new coalition government that it had no plans to leave the eurozone.

In another reminder of the danger of trade disputes, shares in Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE fell as much as 41.5%, wiping $3bn off its market value, as it resumed trade after agreeing to pay up to $1.4bn in penalties to the US government.

Reuters