World shares weaken on Greek limbo

Stock markets on both sides of the Atlantic were weaker overnight as investors feared another day might go by without an agreement that will secure Greece the financial rescue it needs to avoid collapse.

Greece still hasn't finalised its negotiations on agreements that will revamp the nation's debt load in a way that garners the approval of European Union and International Monetary Fund officials, and provide a crucial financial bailout. Many remain hopeful for an agreement.

"They are pretty close on the debt talks, and it looks like the prime minister is getting the various members of his coalition in line [so] that they may actually get this done," Peter Jankovskis, co-chief investment officer at OakBrook Investments in Lisle, Illinois, told Reuters.

"These folks have been at it for a very long time. They have been fighting with this issue for about eighteen months, so they really do see this as, 'We have to get it right this time.'"

In early afternoon trading in New York, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 0.21 per cent, the Standard & Poor's 500 Index slipped 0.17 per cent and the Nasdaq Composite Index edged 0.07 per cent lower.

In Europe, the Stoxx 600 Index ended the day with a 0.2 per cent decline. The euro was steady too, at US$1.3562 by midday in New York.

Others are less optimistic that an agreement will be reached because the austerity measures might be deemed too unpalatable.

"Greece, its leaders and its people are not going to agree to anything unless there is a silver lining and a return to growth," Michael Woolfolk, senior currency strategist in New York at Bank of New York Mellon, told Bloomberg News. "It's not credible to think they'll agree to measures that have recession as far as the eye can see."

Greece will likely not achieve sustainable debt levels with a 70 per cent cut in the value of bonds held by its private creditors alone, as most of the country's debt is now held by the European Central Bank and other official institutions, Standard & Poor's has warned.

"In our original estimate, which was made two years ago, at that time debt-to-GDP would have been restored to a far more sustainable level," according to S&P analyst Frank Gill.

"But because only a small subcomponent of investors are actually taking the haircut and the official sector is not, or only partially, then the reduction... is probably not sufficient debt relief to make debt sustainable given the outlook for GDP itself."
Meanwhile, ECB policymakers are still divided on what contribution the central bank could make to a restructuring of Greece's sovereign debt, Reuters reported, citing two euro zone monetary policy sources.

The comments followed a Wall Street Journal report saying the ECB had made key concessions on its holdings of Greek government bonds.

"There is no agreement yet. Some people on the Council still oppose this," Reuters reported, citing one of the two monetary policy sources, adding that ECB President Mario Draghi had not yet revealed his position.

"I am not aware that a decision has been taken," the second source told Reuters. "As far as I know no formal decision has been made, although of course it is one of the things we could theoretically agree to."

The Greek government needs to find an agreement before March 20 when it is facing a 14.5 billion-euro bond payment.

Europe's central bank is widely expected to keep its key interest rate at a record low 1 per cent tomorrow. The Bank of England's policy committee also meets tomorrow.

Of the 94 Stoxx 600 companies that have reported quarterly earnings since January 9, 45 have missed analysts' estimates, compared with 44 that have surpassed projections, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

In the US, earnings by Walt Disney bettered expectations, lifting its shares. Polo Ralph Lauren Corp jumped more than 10 per cent after better-than-expected results and a rosy outlook for margins.

- BusinessDesk

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