LONDON - Markets were on edge Friday ahead of crucial U.S. jobs figures and weekend elections in France and Greece that could have a big bearing on how Europe's debt crisis plays out over the coming months.
Before the elections, investors have the monthly U.S. government jobs report to digest. It often sets the market tone for a week or two after its release as it's considered the key barometer of the health of the world's largest economy.
Following a week of mixed U.S. economic releases, there's a high degree of uncertainty going into the figures, which will be released an hour before Wall Street opens. At the moment, the consensus in the markets is that the U.S. generated around 160,000 jobs during April — a steady if unspectacular result. The range is between 90,000 and a little over 200,000.
"What we can say is that there will be considerable uncertainty going into the release of today's payrolls report," said Adrian Foster, an analyst at Rabobank International.
The figures could well have a bearing on market expectations over whether the U.S. Federal Reserve enacts another monetary stimulus over the coming months. Recent indicators have suggested that the U.S. economy has lost steam at the start of this year.
In the run-up to the figures, stocks were trading lower in Europe. The FTSE 100 index of leading British shares was down 0.7 per cent at 5,725 while Germany's DAX fell 0.6 per cent to 6,652. The CAC-40 in France was 0.8 per cent lower at 3,198.
Wall Street was poised for a subdued open though clearly that could alter once the payrolls figures are out — both the Dow futures and the S&P 500 futures were down 0.1 per cent.
The dollar could be a major mover after the payrolls data. Ahead of them, the currency was fairly steady, with the euro down 0.1 per cent at $1.3134.
Once the payrolls figures are digested, investors will be focusing on weekend elections in France and Greece. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has for weeks looked like he would lose to his socialist rival Francois Hollande, but recent opinion polls suggest the election could be tighter than expected.
Though a change in leadership in Paris could prompt a change in the way Europe responds to the debt crisis that's already seen three countries bailed out, the elections in Greece have the potential to prompt far more volatility once markets reopen on Monday.
"Traders then need to position themselves for the weekend drama, with the Greek elections the major event risk," said Chris Weston, institutional trader at IG Markets.
Opinion polls in Greece are banned in the run-up to elections so there's no real clear gauge as to the likely result. However, it does seem that Greek society is heavily divided and that the traditional parties of right and left will not get anything like the level of support they have been used to. New Democracy and Pasok are backing the terms of the most recent bailout, unlike many of the smaller parties that may well garner some support in Sunday's elections.
Earlier in Asia, Hong Kong's Hang Seng fell 0.8 per cent to 21,086 and South Korea's Kospi lost 0.3 per cent to 1,989.15.
However, mainland Chinese shares rose, with the benchmark Shanghai Composite Index up 0.5 per cent at 2,452.01 and the Shenzhen Composite Index adding 1.1 per cent to 972.30.
Oil prices drifted lower alongside stocks in Europe, with the benchmark New York rate down 93 cents at $101.61 a barrel.
Pamela Sampson in Bangkok contributed to this report.