Wall Street ends banner January as growth worries dog European stocks

Wall Street stocks finished a banner month on a mostly positive note Thursday on optimism over US-China trade relations, while European bourses were pressured following tepid economic data.

The Dow finished the session a hair lower, but up 7.2% for all of January, in its best start to the year in 30 years.

The S&P 500 and Nasdaq finished solidly higher as Wall Street continued to cheer the Federal Reserve's dovish stance on monetary policy outlined on Wednesday.

US stocks also picked up momentum late in the session when President Donald Trump hailed "tremendous" progress in US-China trade negotiations held over the last two days in Washington.

In a letter to Trump from Chinese leader Xi Jinping, that was read out by a Chinese official, Xi said relations were at a "critical" stage and that he hoped "our two sides will continue to work with mutual respect."

But Trump said they still face a "hard deadline" of March 1, which the US is set to more than double tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports.

Stocks were mixed in Europe, with London and Paris rising modestly and Frankfurt and Milan retreating after European data showed the impact of a lackluster finale to 2018, including in Italy, which officially entered a recession.

The Eurostat agency estimated 2018 growth at 1.8% after expanding by a comparatively booming 2.4% in 2017.

"The big picture remains that this was a disappointing end to the year... (and) the prospects for the first quarter of this year currently look no better," said Andrew Kenningham, an economist at Capital Economics.

Italian recession

Data also showed that Italy's economy shrank 0.2% in the final quarter of last year after a 0.1% drop in the third quarter.

The technical definition of a recession is economic contraction for two quarters in a row. Italy is the eurozone's third largest economy after Germany and France.

"The risk of recession in the eurozone is something that has been widely discussed for weeks now but the news that Italy has fallen into technical recession still comes as a blow to the region," Oanda analyst Craig Erlam told AFP.

"Others could also follow with Germany having posted negative growth in the third quarter. This is naturally weighing on sentiment," Erlam warned.

Italy's recession places intense pressure on the nation's populist government headed by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who took power in June on the back of big-spending electoral promises.

"This (recession) should not really be a surprise given the direction of travel of recent data," CMC Markets analyst Michael Hewson told AFP. "The problem EU policymakers have is that it looks as if it could well be much more serious than originally thought."

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