U.S. stocks closed on Friday with their largest weekly drop in the
last seven weeks as the worst confrontation between Russia and the
West since the end of the Cold War continues to unfold. Markets were
also haunted by concerns over a slowdown in China's economy.
Dozens of Russians involved in Moscow's gradual takeover of Crimea
face U.S. and European Union travel bans and asset freezes on
Monday. Russian state media quoted an exit poll as saying 93 percent
of voters supported union with Russia.
The White House rejected the referendum and called Russia's actions
"dangerous and destabilizing."
"There's an open question as to who suffers most," said Sam
Wardwell, investment strategist at Pioneer Investments in Boston,
about the planned economic sanctions.
"The EU is dependent on Russian natural gas; it's an economic
mutually assured destruction."
Last week's record decline in foreign holdings of U.S. Treasuries
has led some to speculate that Russia has been cutting its dollar
reserves ahead of possible sanctions from the West.
"It will be harder to make a new high (on the S&P 500) with these
global and geopolitical effects overhanging," said Andre Bakhos,
managing director at Janlyn Capital in Bernardsville, New Jersey.
"I don't know if these warnings signs result in dire results, but
they are certainly to be considered when making a macro bet."
The S&P 500 closed last week down 2 percent after hitting a record
close on March 7. The decline in U.S. stocks was smaller than in
other major markets but investors have been protecting their bets
with other instruments.
The CBOE Volatility index VIX jumped near 10 percent to 17.82 on
Friday, its highest level since early February, as investors were
willing to pay more for protection against a drop in the S&P 500.
"Maybe the average investor isn't acting worried, but I sure think
option traders are bracing for some fireworks next week," said Ryan
Detrick, senior technical strategist at Schaeffer's Investment
Research in Cincinnati.
The trading volume on spot VIX options was more than twice the norm
on Friday, with the most active trades in the March and July 20
calls. The VIX has closed above 20 just one day this year, on
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FED TO STAY THE COURSE ON TAPER
The U.S. Federal Reserve is also on investors' radars for next week
as a two-day meeting of its policy-setting committee kicks off on
The Fed could use the meeting, the first with Janet Yellen as chair,
to map out its plan for rate rises, whether in the formal statement
it issues afterward or in Yellen's news conference.
The Fed has said that the first rate rise is likely to come around
the middle of next year, as long as the U.S. economy keeps healing.
"Our anticipation is the Fed will taper again, maintaining the
schedule they have. There seems to be a high hurdle for them to
alter that schedule," said Pioneer Investments' Wardwell.
Recent weakness in economic data has been attributed in part to
weather issues, and markets do not expect the Fed to veer its course
of winding down its asset-purchase program by another $10 billion,
bringing the monthly purchase total to $55 billion.
Market-sensitive data on tap for next week include housing starts
and consumer inflation data on Tuesday and the Philly Fed survey,
weekly jobless claims and home resales on Thursday.
(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos, additional
reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; editing by Lisa Shumaker and Marguerita Choy)
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