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Trade fears, stocks and currencies in focus

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Markets have focused on the escalation in trade-related rhetoric between the U.S. and China in recent weeks. U.S. stocks came under pressure after President Donald Trump on Thursday said he had instructed U.S. trade officials to consider $100 billion in additional tariffs on Chinese goods.

In response, China’s Ministry of Commerce said on Friday that it would “immediately fight back with a major response” if the U.S. went ahead with its plan to impose tariffs on $100 billion in Chinese imports.

Trump said in a tweet on Sunday that China would remove its trade barriers as that would be the “right thing to do.”

Besides trade concerns, markets also digested the release of March nonfarm payrolls on Friday. Nonfarm payrolls rose 103,000 last month, missing an expected gain of 193,000.

Also of note, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Friday that gradual interest rate increases were needed, although he did not say exactly how many rate hikes were necessary.

Against the yen, the dollar was mostly steady at 106.97 at 8:14 a.m. HK/SIN. The dollar index, which tracks the dollar against a basket of currencies, stood at 90.187.

On the commodities front, U.S. West Texas Intermediate futures edged up 0.21 percent to trade at $62.19 per barrel. Brent crude futures advanced by 0.21 percent to trade at $67.25.

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PC market had best Q1 since 2015, fastest growth in 20 years: Gartner

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Customers looking at laptop computers at a Best Buy in Los Angeles.

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A lot of people and businesses are still buying PCs, extending a boom that started last year during the Covid-19 pandemic as people needed computers to work or go to school from home.

PC shipments to retailers and other vendors were up 32% in the first quarter of 2021 from the same quarter in 2021, according to a new estimate from Gartner. The research firm said it was the highest PC growth rate it had tracked since 2000, and estimated that 69.9 million laptops and desktops were shipped in the quarter.

PC shipments fell sharply in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic before picking up later in the year, making for an easy comparison. But the boom is real on an absolute basis as well: Total PC shipments were also the highest they’ve been since 2015, when they came in at 71.7 million, according to Gartner.

Gartner’s stats do not include Chromebooks, which are inexpensive laptops running a Google-designed browser operating system and are popular with schools. Including Chromebooks, Gartner estimates that the PC market grew 47% in terms of shipment numbers during the quarter.

Monday’s report suggests that PC sales are historically strong at the moment and that a work-from-home PC sales boom may not end as offices recall more workers and students go back to school. The stats also suggest that PCs will continue to require a lot of new chips and other components during a worldwide semiconductor shortage.

“We believe, at least this year, especially in the first half of this year, PC demand will remain strong. The question is how strong it’s going to be in the second half of this year to next year,” Gartner researcher Mikako Kitagawa told CNBC.

The first quarter is usually a slow time for PC sales, especially compared to the holiday quarter.

Kitagawa said that this quarter’s results may have been even stronger if not for a global chip shortage and other supply chain issues which are forcing some PC vendors to say they will ship computers months later than usual.

“The supply chain was completely disrupted one year ago, and the supply chain is disrupted right now because of a global semiconductor shortage,” Kitagawa said.

According to the report, the top five PC makers are Lenovo, HP, Dell, Apple, Acer, and Asus.

Other sales estimates also suggest a hot PC market during the period: Canalys estimates that the PC market grew by 55% in the quarter, and IDC estimates 55% growth as well.

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Market braces for key inflation report Tuesday that may test the Fed’s mettle

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Shoppers wearing protective masks push shopping carts inside a Costco store in San Francisco, California, on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The pace of consumer inflation is likely to have returned to prepandemic levels in March, and it is expected to heat up even more in the next couple of months.

Rising inflation is one of the biggest fears in the market, and if it gets too hot, it could corrode asset values, limit buying power and eat away at corporate margins.

It is inevitable the reopening economy will generate some pick-up in inflation, with demand up sharply and supply chain issues resulting in shortages. Newly vaccinated consumers are also expected to resume traveling and other activities outside the home, which could create a temporary surge in services inflation.

But the Fed and some economists argue this inflationary pick up will be temporary, meaning it should not derail the recovery or result in Fed rate hikes. That makes every new inflation report very important to markets, and that is the case with Tuesday’s 8:30 a.m. release of March CPI.

The March consumer price index is expected to show a moderate 0.2% increase in core inflation, excluding food and energy prices, according to economists polled by Dow Jones. On a year-over-year basis, that is a 1.5% pace, compared to 1.3% in February.

March headline inflation is expected to increase by 0.5% or 2.5% year-over-year, up from 1.7% in February. By May, some economists expect headline inflation could be running at an year-over- year rate of 3.5% or more. The headline rate was last at 2.5% in January, 2020.

“We remain positive but once we get to the end of this year and early next year, and we’ve worked through the supply chain bottlenecks and demand has normalized, as the economy opened up, we don’t think it’s a sustained source of inflation over the medium term,” said Blerina Uruci, senior U.S. economist at Barclays.

Uruci expects core inflation to reach 2.3% by May but then it could be below 2% in the second half of the year.

The Fed has taken great pains to assure markets that it does not expect the inflation trend to remain hot and that the increase is largely the result of base effects. That means the gains in inflation appear larger when compared to the weakness in prices a year ago, when the economy was shutdown.

“I think this year we should be prepared for a lot of volatility in inflation. We’ll have those base effects now and we have a little bit of deceleration after that,” Uruci said.

The central bank has also altered its inflation policy and says it will tolerate inflation running above its 2% target for a period, before it would raise interest rates.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has been driving the message that the Fed is not worried about inflation just yet. He told it to the audience of “60 Minutes” Sunday evening. On an International Monetary Fund panel last week, Powell argued that the U.S. has lived in a period of low inflation for a quarter century and he expects that trend to continue.

“We want to see inflation move up to about 2%. And we mean that on a sustainable basis. We don’t mean just tap the base once. But then we’d also like to see it on track to move moderately above 2% for some time. And the reason for that is we want inflation to average 2% over time,” Powell said in the “60 Minutes” interview. “Inflation has been below 2%. We want it to be just moderately above 2%. We want it to be just moderately above 2%. So that’s what we’re looking for. That’s the situation we’re looking for. And when we get that, that’s when we’ll raise interest rates.”

Fed: Don’t be alarmed

Jim Caron, head of global macro strategy at Morgan Stanley Investment Mangement, said the market is now taking its cue from the Fed and that Powell has prepared the markets.

“He gave the market a pregame to see these high inflation prints and not get alarmed. His message to the market is don’t be alarmed by it. It’s coming back down,” said Caron. He said Powell has made it clear that inflation should not be a long-term problem. The Fed has said it wants to keep policy easy to help the economy and the labor market, with millions still unemployed.

“The way we frame this debate is whether we think inflation is unanchored or anchored,” said Caron. “I think where Powell is coming down is he’s saying it is anchored because it really is just base effects…The way he’s coming down on it is by saying there’s a lot of slack in the economy.”

But then there’s the potential for surprises, like on Friday, when March producer price inflation showed a surprise 1% jump, double what was expected. The market took the data in stride, but that may not be the case if the CPI is hotter.

“The CPI will be more relevant for the market,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment strategist at Bleakley Advisory Group. Boockvar expects inflation to be more persistent than the Fed expects, and the market could react to any signs of that.

“Companies are only now beginning to increase prices to offset their own cost pressures,” he said.

Uruci said the inflation picture has altered since the pandemic, but she was not surprised by the jump in PPI, as it is consistent with what she is seeing in CPI. “We have really been highlighting the buildup of pipeline price pressures,” Uruci said. She said PPI was boosted by two things that would not necessarily show up in problem for consumer inflation. One was a rise in export prices and the other a strong gain in prices of goods sold to the government.

“We expect services to only start picking up in Q3 and Q4. If we’re wrong in that forecast ,and that happens sooner, we could see elevated inflation for the rest of the year,” she said.

Inside the March CPI, she expects to see a pickup of 0.1% in shelter, which is about a third of the index. Because of the slowdown in rentals, shelter inflation has slowed to about 1.6% from over 3% prepandemic. She said the vaccine news may help lower vacancy rates in some metropolitan areas, lifting rental prices.

The test for the Fed is how March CPI and the next several reports line up.

“Fed officials can utter the word “transitory” until they are blue in the face, but 1) how will they know? and 2) will market participants still get nervous, despite Fed reassurance, when the inflation readings reach levels not seen in a very long time? ” wrote Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont. “Buckle up, this could be a bumpy ride!”

Stanley made the comment following Friday’s PPI report.

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NYSE launches ‘First Trade’ NFTs of Spotify, Snowflake and more

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People walk by the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on the morning that the music streaming service Spotify begins trading shares at the NYSE on April 3, 2018 in New York City.

Spencer Platt | Getty Images

The New York Stock Exchange announced Monday it would launch “First Trade” NFTs, to memorialize the true first trade of six stocks on the public markets.

NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are a type of digital asset created to track ownership of a virtual item using blockchain technology. Such unique items could be a piece of art or sports trading cards.

During a company’s public debut, the exchange processes over 350 billion order, quote and trade messages across its markets on its busiest days, NYSE president Stacey Cunningham said in a LinkedIn post.

Each message is recorded on the exchange’s digital ledger.

“Only one of those messages marks the NYSE First Trade: the exact moment a company became public, creating an opportunity for others to share in their success,” Cunningham said. “The NYSE First Trade NFT memorializes that unique moment in a company’s history.”

NYSE’s first class of NFTs represent the first trade of Spotify, which executed the inaugural direct listing on the exchange.

In a direct listing, a company makes its debut by selling existing shares directly to the public instead of bringing in intermediaries.

The exchange’s NFT offerings also include Snowflake, the biggest software IPO ever, as well as Unity, DoorDash, Roblox and Coupang, the largest initial public offering of 2021 so far.

NFTs have boomed in popularity this year along with a rise in the values of digital currencies, like bitcoin and ether. The market is growing rapidly, with some digital collectibles being sold for millions of dollars. 

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey sold the first-ever tweet for over $2.9 billion on the “Valuables” platform run by blockchain company Cent. Meanwhile, auction house Christie’s sought bids on a virtual work from the artist Beeple which eventually sold for $69 million.

Investors can access NYSE NFTs on crypto.com

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— with reporting from CNBC’s Ryan Browne.

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