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Investors are happy again

PARIS, Jul 26 – Euphoria on global stock markets might give the impression that the financial crisis is a thing of the past, but for unemployed workers or idling companies the effect of the turmoil is still keenly felt.

On the main equity markets last week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit its highest level in 2009 during the week, Tokyo\’s main index added 5.8 percent over the week and the London FTSE rose 4.28 percent.

For many, there seems a disconnect between the optimism sweeping financial markets and the hardship felt in industry and the labour market where job losses, pay cuts and factory closures continue.

On Thursday, the Dow Jones gained 2.12 percent on a day when the US Labor Department said first-time claims for unemployment benefits rose to 554,000 the previous week.

"The general rule of thumb is that the equity market leads the economic cycle by 6-9 months," an analyst at investment bank Calyon, Daragh Maher, explained to AFP.

In other words, investors are anticipating blue skies ahead and they are adjusting to the first signals of better weather.

Companies are much less responsive, meaning most people will continue to live under the thunder clouds of the financial crisis for some time — or at least until the final quarter of this year if equities bottomed in March.

"The initial phase of any downturn is that you fire people, then you stop firing people, then you start hiring again," added Maher.

"Companies are still in the phase where they\’re still firing, but not quite as large as they were three months ago.
"I think it\’ll be the middle of 2010 before you\’ll see businesses being confident enough to begin rehiring in any great scale."

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A survey released Friday backed up this view.

The poll, a Eurobarometer released by the European Commission, showed that two thirds of Europeans believed that worse job losses were to come and a third of those working said they were "very worried" about their job.

The good news for everyone — not just those who own shares or work in finance — is that there are genuine causes for optimism about the so-called "real economy" that underpinned the swing in the market mood last week.

An avalanche of company reports in the United States showed most firms delivering generally better-than-expected results, with a recovering financial sector meaning credit should become easier to get.

Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs shattered forecasts on Tuesday with 3.44 billion dollars in quarterly profit and signalled a return to business-as-usual with news of giant bonus payments for staff.

Caterpillar, a maker of machines and energy equipment that is a bellwether for the broader economy, pointed to signs of hope for the first time in 18 months after a string of job cuts and capacity reductions.

"The stock market has been pleased with the results which are fueling the current rally," commented Fred Dickson, analyst at the DA Davidson & Co brokerage, commenting on the rising US stock market.

Other signs of stabilisation in the US housing market — the source of the problem via the subprime mortgage sector — also prompted optimism, as did economic indicators and comments in other countries.

Japan\’s economy, the second in the world in size, has been showing "signs of recovery," the goverment said in an annual report, noting that the slump had been "extremely deep."

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The Asian Development Bank said it saw economies in its region bouncing back in 2010 led by China, which managed to report annual growth of 7.9 percent in the second quarter despite the difficulties elsewhere.

In Europe, surveys showed a brighter mood among eurozone firms, particularly in powerhouse Germany where the closely watched monthly Ifo survey showed sentiment among companies brightening for the fourth month running.

"Firms are not so unhappy with the current business situation as they were the previous month … It looks as though the economy is gaining traction," the Ifo research institute said.

"Goodbye recession, hello upswing," commented an analyst at Unicredit bank.

But there are still plenty of reasons for caution. Since the eruption of the financial crisis, stock markets have staged a number of rallies that have faltered and only weeks ago the talk was of a weaker-than-expected recovery.

"The overall picture suggests that the road ahead won’t be bump-free and that the market may change moods with little notice," noted analysts at Goldman Sachs.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who had to contend with data on Friday showing the British economy contracted by 5.6 percent in the three months to the end of June, urged everyone to stay on his or her guard.

"There\’s no room for complacency, the world economy remains fragile, economic recovery cannot be taken for granted either here or abroad," he said last Tuesday.

"People are maybe too complacent about recovery. We\’re determined to keep our focus."

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