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Wall Street stocks end tumultuous 2020 at records

Sterling reaches 2.5-year dollar peak

By AFP - Jan 03,2021 - Last updated at Jan 03,2021

A British one pound sterling coin is arranged in front of a Union flag for a photograph in London on December 14, 2017 (AFP file photo)

NEW YORK — Wall Street indices finished 2020 at all-time highs on Thursday, a surprising conclusion to a year in which the United States endured a recession caused by the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that continues to plague the country.

The Dow and S&P 500 finished at fresh records, capping a year in which they, along with the Nasdaq, scored significant gains even amid elevated joblessness, rising hunger and acute pain in sectors such as hospitality, airlines, oil and gas and the performing arts.

"For Main Street, it was a terrible year", said analyst Patrick O'Hare. "For Wall Street, it was a fantastic year."

The broad-based S&P 500, which swooned below the 2,200-point level at its nadir in March, finished the year at 3,756.07, up 16.3 per cent for the year.

European equity markets had a mixed year, with Frankfurt higher, but Paris declined and London suffered its worst year since the global financial crisis.

The gains in US indices seemed impossible in March, when exchanges were forced to suspend trading as stocks went into free-fall as much of the US economy was shut down to combat the coronavirus.

The US did not fully manage to get the virus under control, and concludes 2020 with its highest-ever single-day death toll of more than 3,900 people.

Yet, markets pivoted quickly from the fear of a depression-like collapse after the Federal Reserve stepped in with extraordinary stimulus and Congress mobilised to enact its biggest-ever fiscal package, the $2.2 trillion CARES Act.

Stocks began regaining ground in late March and rose for much of the summer. Volatility picked up again in the fall ahead of the November presidential election and as the infections spiked.

But Wall Street engineered a strong late-year rally as COVID-19 vaccines were approved and began to be rolled out, fueling hope for an economic recovery in the new year.

However, analysts see risks ahead in the first part of 2021.

"We've priced in a lot of the good news and not the bad news," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at National Securities.

He expects the market in the upcoming period to fixate both on weakening economic data and on the virus's worrying spread.

"In large part, the market has done so well in 2020 because it is pricing in 2021," O'Hare said.


Sterling gains, FTSE falls 


Back in Europe, Paris suffered a 7.1-per cent drop but Frankfurt gained 3.6 per cent in volatile record-breaking deals over the course of 2020.

London's FTSE 100 suffered a 14-per cent drop for the year, its worst since 2008, but the British pound zoomed to a 2.5-year dollar peak before Britain's long-awaited exit from the European single market, with a trade deal in the bag on markets' final day of a coronavirus-ravaged 2020.

The country left the bloc on January 31 but has been in a standstill transition while it sought a free-trade agreement — which was finally clinched on Christmas Eve and was approved by lawmakers on Wednesday.

That dispelled long-running fears of a chaotic no-deal departure that could have sparked a double-dip downturn, after Britain tanked into a recession earlier this year on coronavirus fallout.

"A Brexit deal may have come extremely late in the day but there will be a massive sense of relief that the UK won't be battling no-deal on top of everything else in the coming months — and that relief can be seen in the pound," OANDA analyst Craig Erlam told AFP.

"It's ending the year on a high... It's all about the recovery now for the UK as it faces another devastating [virus] surge and most of the country moves into tier four."

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