Stock markets have fallen sharply after signs that the US Federal Reserve could start pulling away emergency support for the world’s biggest economy later this year.
In London, the FTSE 100 was down by more than 170 points – or over 2% – after the publication of minutes of the Fed’s latest policy meeting on Wednesday evening, taking it under the 7,000 mark.
Stock markets in Germany, France and Italy were also in the red while oil prices continued their six-day losing streak, with a barrel of Brent crude dipping below $67 a barrel.
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Markets are digesting the possibility that, even as the worldwide spread of the Delta variant continues to cause alarm, the Fed is preparing to ease off its $120bn monthly programme of bond purchases.
It adds to a cocktail of worries this week which also include signs of weakness in the Chinese economy and the turmoil in Afghanistan.
Minutes of the Fed’s meeting last month showed officials felt that a threshold for the US jobs recovery that may mean starting to withdraw support “could be reached this year”.
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However, consensus on a start date and pace of the withdrawal remains elusive while the Fed also reiterated the view that “the risks that rising COVID-19 cases associated with the spread of the Delta variant could cause delays in returning to work and school, and so damp the economic recovery”.
The release of the minutes prompted a shares fall on Wall Street before the anxious sentiment spread to Asian markets and then Europe.
Vast stimulus packages from the Fed and other central banks have underpinned a recovery in stocks from the sharp sell-off seen in the early stages of the pandemic.
But as vaccines help many countries to emerge from tough lockdowns and inflation surges back, there is growing pressure on officials to start to pull back or “taper” the support.
In London it was volatile mining stocks such as Anglo American and Antofagasta – whose fortunes are closely linked to swings in global demand for the commodities that they dig up – that led the fallers.
Declines for oil giants BP and Royal Dutch Shell and banking heavyweight HSBC also dragged on the FTSE 100.
Richard Hunter, head of markets at Interactive Investor, said: “Markets took another glancing blow as the Federal Reserve minutes revealed that tapering is edging ever nearer.
“While no date has yet been confirmed, there is an increasing split within its members and it appears increasingly likely that the taper will begin before the end of the year.
“Alongside some mixed retailer results, the unrest in Afghanistan and an apparently weakening Chinese economy, this has been a week to test the mettle of investors.”