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Uneasy rally in US stocks likely to continue

Traders divided on impact of Ukrainian crisis, EM weakness on the US market

LAST week, US stocks finished near record highs as the initial shock of Russia's invasion of the Crimea wore off; and this uneasy rally may continue this week.

Friday's jobs data showed 175,000 were added to payrolls in February - considerably more than economists had anticipated. The unemployment rate ticked up, confirming fears that weather had furloughed many manual labourers. The fact that so many jobs were created, despite the drag from such a critical sector, supported the argument that a bitter winter has masked a strong underlying economy.

"Our thesis is that the global economy continues to do reasonably well . . . it's probably a little bit stronger than most people fear or think," said Oliver Pursche, president of money manager Gary Goldberg Financial Services.

"And, the US economy is certainly chugging along . . . I'd suggest 2014 GDP growth is going to average 3 per cent or better."

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Where some of the five-year rally has been predicated on little more than cheap credit and speculative hope, most strategists say investors are now buying for more fundamental reasons. Last week, some of the speculative 2013 leaders - three-dimensional printing companies such as 3-D Systems, and biotechnology companies such as Intercept - fell back, as steadier growing old-line industrials such as Honeywell took the lead.

The US Federal Reserve seems to have timed its retreat from stimulative policies well: both the bond market and the economy have held steady, even as it has gradually cut back monthly bond purchases. With budgets in the US and Europe on a much steadier footing than a year or two ago, the threat of war in the Ukraine and the instability of other emerging markets such as Turkey and Venezuela are the last great risk haunting the market.

Last week, the chief minister of the Crimean regional parliament - viewed as a Russian puppet - rushed through a vote that would cede the peninsula to the Russian Federation from the Ukraine. The predominantly ethnic Russian population is scheduled to vote on the measure on March 16, and there are already signs of civil unrest.

As was evident from last week's rally, traders are divided on the extent to which the Ukrainian conflict or broader emerging market weakness affect the US stock market. "The economic impact is going to be nonexistent outside the region," said Mr Pursche.

Joe Kinahan at TD Ameritrade says the tail of financial markets may end up wagging the dog of international diplomacy. Russian President Vladimir Putin will have to weigh the negative impact on the Russian economy of intervention against strategic interests in the Ukraine.

"With the ruble action the other night . . . when that collapsed, it sent as strong a message as anything that can be sent," said Mr Kinahan.

"Mr Putin is a lot of thing but one of the things he's not is stupid. It's not like in cold war days where you can do what you want and everything works out."

Like many traders, Mr Kinahan looks at the Chicago Board Options Exchange volatility index, or VIX. The index measures changes in the premiums paid for equity options and, more specifically, put options, which rise in value when the price of the underlying shares declines. Puts are usually purchased as "insurance" against a loss in value of stock portfolios.

If financial markets anticipated a major military conflict, the VIX would rally. Instead, it's hovering around levels associated with sleepy markets.

The VIX is "telling us that the world's a happy place that we all live in", said Mr Kinahan.

But analysts at brokerage Morgan Stanley have a grimmer view. The interconnected nature of global economics and finance, in their view, mean that an emerging markets crisis could quickly spread.

"Developed market economies sailed through half a decade of emerging market sudden stops in the late 1990s," the analysts said. "That resilience is unlikely to be repeated today, should an emerging market shock materialise."

This week, retail sales data for February will provide another reminder of the severity of the weather.

Overall, the weather had a negative 0.4 per cent effect on gross domestic product growth for the first quarter, said economists at brokerage Nomura Securities.

While the run-up to the Crimean vote on secession will likely be tense, the stock market may not pay too much attention.

"Keep in mind markets do not discount the same news twice, so to get the market's attention there has to be a significant escalation in words, action and deed," said Quincy Krosby, investment strategist at Prudential Financial.

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