European markets troubled as omicron Covid variant fears return


LONDON — European stocks pulled back on Thursday, in another volatile trading session as concerns persisted over the omicron Covid variant.

The pan-European Stoxx 600 fell 1.1%, with tech stocks plunging 3.8% to lead the losses as almost all sectors and major bourses slid well into the red.

European equities have fluctuated between gains and losses this week as traders search for clues to the severity of the new variant, which was first spotted in South Africa last week but has rapidly spread to countries including the U.S., Britain and Germany.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday confirmed the first known case of the omicron variant in the U.S., which was discovered in California. On Thursday, Minnesota public health officials reported the second known U.S. case of omicron.

President Joe Biden’s administration is moving to tighten travel rules to and within the U.S., including pre-departure testing for in-bound international flights and extending mask mandates for travel until March 18. Meanwhile, Germany decided to tighten restrictions for those unvaccinated against Covid.

According to the World Health Organization, at least 23 countries from five of six regions have now reported cases of omicron.

“We expect that number to grow,” the WHO said. It also noted that hospitalizations are rising across South Africa but said it’s still too early to know whether the omicron variant is driving an increase in severe Covid-19 cases.

Sentiment has also been impacted by concerns over higher inflation and the prospect of a quicker-than-expected tapering of monetary stimulus in the U.S.

Federal Reserve chief Jerome Powell on Tuesday said the central bank will discuss accelerating its wind-down of bond purchases, known as tapering, at its December meeting.

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Asia-Pacific markets closed mixed Thursday while U.S. stocks are trading mostly higher, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average climbing more than 300 points.

On the data front, euro zone producer prices surged 5.4% month-on-month in October, Eurostat figures revealed on Wednesday, for an annual climb of 21.9%.

Meanwhile the jobless rate across the common currency bloc continued to fall, coming in at 7.3% of the workforce in October after, down from 7.4% in September.

At the top of the Stoxx 600, Vifor Pharma shares surged 21% on reports that Australian biotech giant CSL is in talks to buy the Swiss group for around $10 billion.

Toward the bottom of the European blue chip index, British online food delivery firm Deliveroo slumped 9.5% after news that two executives including CEO Will Shu sold millions of pounds’ worth of shares to settle tax liabilities.

Meanwhile, in corporate news, U.K. asset management giant abrdn has agreed to acquire online investment platform interactive investor for £1.49 billion ($1.98 billion). Shares of abrdn sank 3.8%.

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– CNBC’s Ryan Browne contributed to this report

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