Tumultuous month for markets with Russia-Ukraine war

LONDON — European stocks were mixed on the last trading day of March, a month marked by global geopolitical and economic uncertainty after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The pan-European Stoxx 600 hovered fractionally above the flatline in early trade, and was on course to eke out a monthly gain for March. Travel and leisure stocks gained 1%, while retail stocks dropped 1.2%.

The European blue chip index still looks set to end the first quarter more than 5% lower.

In terms of individual share price movement, Hungarian budget carrier Wizz Air climbed 5.6% in early trade while Swedbank fell more than 8%.

Geopolitical uncertainty and concerns over rising inflation have dominated market sentiment in March. Both European and US markets traded lower Wednesday following disappointment after talks between Russia and Ukraine, aimed at finding a solution to the conflict, again appeared to make little progress.

Russia said Tuesday it would reduce its military presence in some parts of Ukraine, but several countries — including the US and UK — remained skeptical over Moscow’s pledge, and Russian attacks on Ukraine continued Wednesday.

Oil prices are also casting a shadow over sentiment. US crude prices climbed more than 3% on Wednesday as Germany warned of potential rationing of natural gas due to disputes with Russia, and US crude stockpiles fell.

Oil prices fell sharply during Asia overnight trading hours, however, before paring losses slightly as markets opened in Europe. International benchmark Brent crude futures were last down 3.5% to $109.50 per barrel. US crude futures dropped around 4.5% to $102.92 per barrel.

US President Joe Biden’s administration is considering a plan to release 1 million barrels of oil per day from the strategic petroleum reserve for about six months, a source told NBC News. Global oil prices have spiked in volatile trade since Russia invaded Ukraine more than a month ago.

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Overall, US stock futures were slightly higher in early premarket trading ahead of the last trading day of the month and quarter. Investors stateside are awaiting weekly jobless claims and personal income and spending data to be released Thursday morning. In Asia-Pacific markets overnight, shares were mixed.

NATO is set to release the military alliance’s annual report on Thursday and OPEC and non-OPEC allies, including Russia, will hold a ministerial meeting.

Despite the clouds hanging over the global economy and markets from the war in Ukraine and associated spikes in energy prices, Hugh Gimber, global market strategist at JPMorgan Asset Management, told CNBC on Thursday that governments’ approach to fiscal policy has shifted in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, and could prevent some of the harm to consumers that fuels recessionary fears.

“The consumer outlook has deteriorated and I think the risks to growth, particularly in the euro zone, now are elevated, but I’ll be watching for that policy response,” Gimber said, noting that governments have “lost their fear of debt” when dealing with circumstances that are beyond the consumer’s control.

“If it’s governments that decide to step in, then you shouldn’t see as big an impact on measures such as retail sales as you would expect normally just given the jump in prices that we’ve seen.”

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— CNBC’s Eustance Huang contributed to this market report.


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