Europe markets: Russia-Ukraine, inflation fears weigh

LONDON — European markets nudged higher on Friday, as global investors assessed soaring U.S. inflation and a hawkish surprise from the European Central Bank, while continuing to track developments in Ukraine.

The pan-European Stoxx 600 added 0.5% in early trade, with travel and leisure stocks climbing 2.4% to lead gains as most sectors and major bourses entered positive territory. Food and beverages slid 0.8% lower.

U.S. consumer price inflation came in at an annual 7.9% in February, its highest level since January 1982, as food and energy costs pushed prices skyward.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent barrage of Western economic sanctions against Moscow, has exacerbated price pressures that were already causing headaches for central bank policymakers. The huge inflation print bolstered expectations for more aggressive hikes to interest rates.

The ECB on Thursday announced that it will end its bond-buying program in the third quarter of 2022 if economic data justifies it, sooner than previously planned. President Christine Lagarde said the war will have a “material impact on economic activity and inflation.”

Market sentiment has been in thrall to developments in Ukraine since Russia launched its attack on Feb. 24. Talks between Russian and Ukrainian diplomats in Turkey have stalled without progress on a cease-fire or an evacuation passage for civilians attempting to flee the besieged city of Mariupol.

Shares in Asia-Pacific fell across the board on Friday, with Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index dropping more than 3% to lead regional losses.

Stock futures stateside were fractionally lower ahead of Friday’s session on Wall Street as the Dow Jones Industrial Average headed for its fifth consecutive losing week.

A raft of economic data was released Friday from across Europe, including February’s German inflation prints and U.K. gross domestic product, construction, manufacturing and industrial production figures for January.

The U.K. economy rebounded more strongly than expected in January after its late 2021 Covid-induced slowdown. The Office for National Statistics said GDP grew 0.8% month on month after a 0.2% decline in December, vastly outstripping expectations of 0.2% growth in a Reuters poll of economists.

German inflation accelerated in February, with harmonized consumer prices rising 5.5% year on year.

In terms of individual share price movement, Italian aerospace and defense company Leonardo surged more than 11% to lead the Stoxx 600 after posting strong fourth-quarter results and promising forward guidance.

At the bottom of the index, Danish hospital equipment maker Ambu fell 5%.

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