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Traders cautious ahead of ECB meeting and US tariffs talk

Stock markets in Europe are broadly unchanged as traders wait the European Central Bank (ECB) meeting at lunchtime. 

Investors are also nervous about the protectionist policies the US are expected to announce in the next day or two. It appears that Mexico and Canada could be exempt from the tariffs that President Trump is talking about imposing on imported steel and aluminium. Market volatility is expected to be low until we hear from the ECB and Mr Trump.  

Shares in Aviva have been hit by profit-taking, as the stock is down slightly even though the company had a good set of results. Operating profit jumped by 2%, but the stand-out performance was in the asset-management business. Aviva increased its headcount on the investment side, and assets under management rose by 9%. The company plans to return £500 million to shareholders, pay down £900 million in debt, and £600 million has been earmarked for acquisitions. The share price has been drifting lower since August, and if it breaks below the February low of 484p, it could target the 470p area.

Spirent Communications shares are in demand this morning after the company swung to profit, and the announcement of a special dividend was the highlight of the update. The company trimmed costs, and discarded non-core activities which helped them post a profit of $46.6 million, and that compared with a loss of $46 million last year. The total dividend was upped by 7% to 4.08 cents, and a special dividend of 5 cents was revealed too. The company has clearly turned a corner and is obviously optimistic as it is increasing its shareholders’ returns. The stock reached a seven-month high, and if the bullish move continues it could target 130p.

The ECB will announce its interest-rate decision at 12.45pm (UK time), and the consensus is for the policy to remain on hold. Traders will be paying close attention to the press conference at 1.30pm (UK time) as it might provide clues as to what the ECB’s next move might be. The central bank is currently purchasing €30 billion of bonds per month, and dealers are wondering what might happen post-September when the monetary-easing scheme comes to an end.

Germany posted disappointing industrial orders as January saw a decline of 3.9%, while economists were anticipating a fall of 1.6%. The December report revised down from 3.8% to 3%, which is also concerning. It would appear the German economy is coming off the boil, and it is possible the relative strength of the euro is to blame. 

We are expecting the Dow Jones to open down 60 points at 24,741 and we are calling the S&P 500 down 3 points at 2723.

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