Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

London — Share markets flatlined on Thursday as uncertainty over the outlook for US interest-rate cuts following the release of minutes from the US Federal Reserve's last policy meeting kept investors on edge.

The Chinese yuan's slump to an 11-year low also sapped their appetite for risk, with dealers saying state-owned banks were seen selling dollars to support the yuan.

The MSCI world equity index, which tracks shares in 47 countries, was down 0.1%. In Europe, the Euro Stoxx 600 fell 0.1% in choppy trade, following a 0.5% drop in MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan.

Wall Street futures gauges were flat.

Minutes of the Fed's July meeting showed deep splits among policymakers over whether to cut interest rates in July, though there was some unity in wanting to signal it was not on a preset path to looser policy.

The Fed cut rates 0.25% in July. While a “couple” of Fed members supported a deeper cut of half a percentage point, “several” favoured no change at all.

That reluctance to loosen policy seems at odds with the expectations for a cut of over 100 basis points by the end of 2020 that are already priced into markets.

Market players said that the minutes reflected a dissonance between expectations for cuts — fuelled by geopolitical concerns such as US-China trade tensions and economic weakness in major economies such as Germany — and the apparently solid fundamentals of the US economy.

“The update last night was a bit of a reality check — maybe don't get ahead of yourself on what the Fed is going to do,” said David Madden, market analyst at CMC Markets.

“If you forget about the geopolitical headlines, forget about what the bond markets are doing, and look at the underlying indicators of the US ... people are in jobs, earning decent money and, more importantly, spending money.”

Indeed, the apparent strength of the world's biggest economy was on display on Wednesday, where Wall Street basked in surprisingly upbeat results from retailers that sent Target surging 20% and Lowe's up 10%.

But beyond the US, worries about the fragility of the global economy were evident in data from Europe on Thursday.

Germany's private sector continued to struggle in August, suggesting further that Europe's largest economy is heading for a recession after its economy shrunk between April-June.

Eurozone business growth expectations also fell to their weakest in more than six years on trade war fears, even as the expansion picked up a touch in August.

Yuan at lowest since 2008

The Fed minutes raised the stakes for Chair Jerome Powell's speech on Friday at the Fed's annual policy retreat in Jackson Hole, Wyoming — an event that investors are waiting for with bated breath.

US President Donald Trump has been urging larger rate reductions, with proponents of looser policy pointing to the need to lift inflation toward the Fed's target and thwart fallout from global trade tensions.

And those trade worries played out again in currency markets, where the fall in China's yuan to 7.0752/$, its lowest since March 2008, promoted a rush to perceived safe-haven assets such as the yen.

Against the dollar, the yen advanced 0.2% to ¥106.41, nearing last week's eight-month low of ¥105.05.

Currency traders said that while the Chinese economy's slowing growth meant pressure had been building on the renminbi from long before, the new fall suggested Beijing was prepared to use the currency as leverage as trade tensions simmer.

“This indicates that this is an instrument of the Chinese government in the trade war. It is allowing for renminbi weaknesses,” said Thu Lan Nguyen, forex strategist with Commerzbank in Frankfurt.

“It is an indication that they are expecting the trade war to continue, to last longer than they anticipated last year.”

In commodities, oil prices dipped on worries about the global economy and bigger-than-expected buildups in oil product inventories in the US, the world's biggest oil consumer.

Brent crude futures rose 0.3%, or 18 US cents, to $60.48, while US crude gained 23c to $55.91 a barrel.