European and US markets struck a cautious note on Thursday, with the FTSE 100 (^FTSE) closing just 0.07% higher, spending most of the day flat, as first-time claims for unemployment insurance in the US came in weaker than expected.
Healthcare and industrial companies were amongst the leaders on the FTSE as the UK vaccine rollout continues across the country, and AstraZeneca (AZN.L) said it hopes to be able to implement adapted vaccines “six to nine months” after the discovery of new coronavirus variants.
However, weakness among banks also weighed on the index.
AJ Bell said: “The FTSE 100 has now been treading water for more than a week as strong sterling weighs on the large number of index members which earn in different currencies. Markets across Europe and Asia were also static on Thursday with investors sitting on their hands, waiting for progress updates on the US stimulus plan and vaccination numbers.”
WATCH: Inside Europe's fight for COVID shots
Across the pond, the S&P 500 (^GSPC) and the tech-heavy Nasdaq (^IXIC) were 0.15% and 0.47% higher respectively at the European close, having hit historic highs on Wednesday. The Dow Jones (^DJI) dipped 0.08%.
It came as jobless claims in America totalled 793,000 last week, a decline from the previous week’s figure of 812,000. Total filings for assistance jumped to 20.44 million amid a surge in applications for benefits under pandemic-related programs.
This also followed a benign reading on US inflation and a dovish Federal Reserve outlook on Wednesday.
Fed chair Jerome Powell said to the Economic Club of New York that rates will stay low for a while, adding that America is “a long way” from where it needs to be in terms of employment despite an unemployment rate that has fallen to 6.3%.
WATCH: Fed chair Jerome Powell discusses state of US labour market
“Despite the surprising speed of recovery early on, we are still very far from a strong labour market whose benefits are broadly shared,” Powell said.
“Given the number of people who have lost their jobs and the likelihood that some will struggle to find work in the post-pandemic economy, achieving and sustaining maximum employment will require more than supportive monetary policy. It will require a society-wide commitment, with contributions from across government and the private sector.”
Meanwhile, Asian shares closed at record highs overnight as investors digested recent gains.
MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan added 0.1%, having already climbed for four sessions to be up over 10% so far this year.
Japan's Nikkei (^N225) was shut after ending at a 30-year peak on Wednesday, while Australia's main index held near an 11-month top. The Hang Seng (^HSI) closed up 0.45% and the Shanghai Composite (000001.SS) gained 1.43%.
Milan Cutkovic, market analyst at Axi, said: "With major Asian markets shut for a public holiday and the earnings season slowly coming to an end, investors are waiting for the next big catalyst to propel stocks to new highs.
"The economic calendar for the coming days is looking light and market participants will likely shift their focus back to the stimulus negotiations in Washington DC as well as the global vaccination efforts.
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