World stock markets on Thursday ended 2015 with a whimper after sharp volatility sparked by China's slowdown, eurozone stimulus, the Greek crisis, rising US rates and a commodities rout. "After a year that began so promisingly the markets are wrapping up 2015 in the limpest way possible, a collective sigh instead of any attempt at New Year's Eve fireworks," said Spreadex analyst Connor Campbell.
Asian equities limped across the finish line after a tumultuous 2015 that also witnessed a Summer meltdown on the battered Chinese stock exchange. European and US markets had enjoyed a record-breaking run at the start of the year, boosted by the expectation and then delivery of European Central Bank's quantitative easing (QE) stimulus. Investors fretted on uncertainty over the Federal Reserve's first interest rate hike in almost a decade, but the bank eventually hiked borrowing costs in December amid growing confidence in the US economic recovery.
China's economic slowdown also plagued trading floors in 2015 and sent commodities reeling because the Asian giant is a top consumer of many raw materials. Oil prices collapsed on global oversupply and demand fears, culminating in an 11-year low for Brent crude last week. "There have been two distinct periods to the markets this year; the first third ... of 2015 saw the European and US markets all surge to fresh all-time highs, prompted by the promise, and delivery, of (ECB chief) Mario Draghi's long awaited quantitative easing plan," Campbell told AFP.
"Yet as the year went on, the euphoric trading atmosphere began to sour, the Greek saga that played havoc with the European indices compounded by the dual pressures of August's dramatic Chinese crash and the impending US rate hike. "Even as the Greek issue was resolved, jitters about the world's two biggest economies" persisted in the second half of 2015.
Over the course of the year, Frankfurt - closed Thursday - and Paris have won almost ten percent in value. London's commodities-heavy shares index was however down 5.0 percent. In light holiday trade on Thursday, the British capital's FTSE 100 finished 0.51 percent lower. The French CAC 40 ended down 0.9 percent. In March, the ECB launched a 1.1-trillion-euro ($1.2 trillion) stimulus to help lift consumer prices. The QE programme to buy sovereign bonds at a rate of 60 billion euros a month runs until at least September 2016. Markets were rocked this year by Greece's financial crisis. In July, Athens accepted a three-year, 86-billion-euro EU bailout that saved it from crashing out of the eurozone.
The ECB meanwhile delivered an interest rate cut in early December and expanded stimulus measures, but the moves were not as bold as investors had hoped. Germany's DAX 30 index had its final trading session on Wednesday, ending with a loss of 1.1 percent in holiday-shortened deals. However, the DAX finished 2015 with an impressive annual gain of 9.56 percent. Frankfurt could have risen even more sharply if it had not been for German carmaker Volkswagen, hurt by a pollution-cheating scandal, dealers said.
Looking ahead, China remains central to the outlook for global markets, according to VTB Capital economist Neil MacKinnon. "China remains key to the outlook for the global economy and global financial markets," he told AFP. "In spite of tentative signs that the Chinese economy might be stabilising there are still challenges posed by very high levels of credit and debt.