Stock markets usher in ’12 quietly after flat holiday

AP and Reuters

LONDON–European stock markets headed higher in early trading Monday, while South Korea’s benchmark KOSPI closed flat following the New Year’s holiday weekend. Britain’s FTSE 100 index rose 0.1 percent at 5,572.28. Germany’s DAX was 1.1 percent higher at 5,960.04. France’s CAC-40 rose 0.5 percent to 3,174.76. South Korea’s KOSPI index, which lost 11 percent of its value last year, closed nearly unchanged at 1,826.37. Most other Asian markets were closed for an extended New Year’s holiday. South Korea’s tech sector move higher, with Samsung Electronics up 2.1 percent and LG Electronics gaining 2.3 percent. Steel giant POSCO slid 1.1 percent and Korea Electric Power shed 1.8 percent. Taiwan’s TAIEX, which was also open for business Monday, fell 1.7 percent to 6,952.21. Foxconn Technology, the world’s biggest contract electronics manufacturer, which makes iPads and iPhones for Apple Inc., fell 0.9 percent. Personal computer maker Acer Inc. shed 2.3 percent. Benchmarks in the Philippines and India rose while Indonesia fell. The Asian-Pacific region’s major benchmarks, including Japan’s Nikkei 225 index, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index and Australia’s S&P ASX 200, were closed. Markets in the U.S. are also closed in observance of New Year’s Day. Last year was one that traders would prefer to forget: most Asian equity indexes closed out 2011 deeply in the red. The Nikkei in Tokyo ended the year at 8,429.45 — its lowest closing since 1982. China’s benchmark Shanghai Composite Index, closed Monday, endured a 21 percent loss for the year as the impact of Beijing’s multibillion-dollar stimulus faded and the government tightened curbs on lending and investment to cool blistering economic growth. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index finished at 18,434.39 — a precipitous slide of 19.7 percent from a year ago. Singapore’s Straits Times Index took a 17.5 percent dive when it closed at 2,646.35 on Friday. Australia’s benchmark S&P ASX 200 ended the year at 4,140.4 — 14.5 percent lower for 2011. India’s benchmark Sensex index fell more than 22 percent in 2011, making it one of the worst performers globally. The rupee also lost about 14 percent this year and recently hit an all-time low, breaching 54 rupees to the dollar. In hopes of reducing volatility and attracting foreign cash, India announced Sunday that it would allow individual foreign nationals to invest directly in its stock market starting Jan. 15. Currently, foreign investors are limited to indirect investments such as mutual funds.

Traders said worries about debt raising in Italy, which is at the centre of the region’s crisis, in the first part of the year would likely to cap gains going into the New Year. Italy needs to raise 450 billion euros in debt markets in 2012 and with ten-year Italian yields above 7 percent — a level considered unsustainable — investors are unlikely to pile back into the market in a hurry. “It is very low volume, and I think it is going to be a pretty tough year ahead,” Mark Priest, senior trader at ETX Capital, said. “We have had nothing but doom and gloom. Italy has a whole tranche of debt to repay and that could have a significant knock-on effect for Europe if they do not do well.” Spain could be dragged back into the centre of the euro zone debt crisis after its new government said on Friday that this year’s budget deficit would be much larger than expected and announced a slew of surprise tax hikes and wage freezes.

Utility stocks featured amongst the top performers, with E.ON and RWE rising 1.5 percent and 1.2 percent respectively as investors stuck to companies which are considered safe havens in economically tough times.