Euro pressured, oil slide a boon for bonds

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The euro was pinned near nine-year lows on Wednesday as investors wagered the European Central Bank was just a week away from launching a new stimulus campaign, while concerns about the global economy kept Asian equities subdued.

There was no reprieve for commodities with oil near six-year lows while copper prices dropped further below $6,000 per tonne to their weakest level in more than five years.

Not helping the mood was news the World Bank had lowered its global growth forecasts because of sluggishness in the euro zone, Japan and some major emerging economies.

"The global economy is at a disconcerting juncture," World Bnk chief economist Kaushik Basu told reporters. "It is as challenging a moment as it gets for economic forecasting."

That was a challenging background for equities and Australia's main share index slipped 0.3 per cent in early trade.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was just a fraction firmer.

Wall Street had ended Tuesday with minor losses, led by a drop in materials and energy shares. It was a choppy session with the S&P 500 swinging from a gain of 1.4 per cent to a fall of 1 per cent before steadying.

The Dow eased 0.15 per cent, while the S&P 500 dipped 0.26 per cent and the Nasdaq 0.07 per cent.

The US dollar outpaced the euro on the back of upbeat U.S. economic data and after two European Central Bank (ECB) officials fuelled expectations that the bank would launch a program to buy government bonds at its Jan. 22 policy meeting.

The common currency fell as far as US$1.1753 to reach a low not seen since December 2005. It last traded at US$1.1775. Against the yen, the euro slumped to its lowest in over two months near 138.30.

Market attention now turns to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which is expected to provide a non-binding opinion on the legality of an ECB bond-buying program later on Wednesday.

The pressure for policy action has grown intense as falling oil prices pulled consumer prices into negative territory across the euro zone last month.

So far this week, Brent has lost 7 per cent and U.S. crude 5 per cent. On Wednesday, Brent was quoted at US$46.79 a barrel, with U.S. crude at US$45.96 after hitting an April 2009 low of US$44.20.

The impact was clear in the UK where inflation halved to just 0.5 per cent in December, the lowest in over 14 years. That only reinforced market expectations the Bank of England would not be able to hike rates until 2016 at the earliest Likewise, investors are wagering the Federal Reserve will find it hard to start tightening in the middle of the year, as some policy members have suggested.

The risk of low inflation for longer has in turn pulled down bond yields globally, with five-year debt in Germany and Japan now paying nothing at all.

One side effect of plunging bond yields is to make gold more attractive as an alternative investment.

Since gold does not pay a return, an opportunity cost for holding it is the yield forgone on safe-haven bonds. Now, that cost has diminished to the point where buying gold offers the same return as lending money to Germany for five years.

The yellow metal was steady around US$1,231.60 an ounce after touching a three-month peak.