Mario who? Christine Lagarde steps into the ECB spotlight

Posted December 12, 2019 7:09 a.m. EST

— Happy Thursday. A version of this story first appeared in CNN Business' Before the Bell newsletter. Not a subscriber? You can sign up right here.

Time for Christine Lagarde to step into the spotlight. The European Central Bank president presides over her first policy decision on Thursday, followed by a highly-anticipated press conference.

What to watch for: So far, investors have read Lagarde, previously the International Monetary Fund chief, as a dovish figure in the mold of her predecessor, the much-celebrated Mario Draghi. But they don't have much to go on. Expect central bank watchers to scrutinize her remarks for clues about both where she'll take monetary policy and what kind of leader she'll be.

"The excitement to the run-up doesn't really stem from possible policy changes but rather from how her communication style will differ from Draghi," ING economist Carsten Brzeski said in a note to clients.

Reminder: Lagarde trained as a lawyer, not an economist.

The ECB isn't expected to announce any policy changes, so the market reaction to the meeting may be subdued. But investors are watching closely for more details on the ECB's plans for a big review of its monetary policy strategy next year.

Jörg Krämer, the chief economist at Commerzbank, thinks it's time for reforms. "Changes in all elements of its strategy are needed including the target, instruments and communication," he said in a note Thursday. If the ECB agrees, 2020 could be a year of major changes.

Meanwhile, in Washington: The Federal Reserve said Wednesday that it would keep interest rates steady, halting a series of cuts that lifted markets and countered recession fears amid ongoing trade uncertainty.

Thirteen of the 17 participants on the Federal Open Market Committee's policy-setting body now anticipate keeping interest rates level in 2020, my CNN Business colleague Donna Borak reports.

"The Fed is likely to sit on their hands for the foreseeable future barring a material change in the economic outlook," said Charlie Ripley, senior investment strategist at Allianz Investment Management.

Aramco gets its $2 trillion valuation. Can it last?

Saudi Aramco shares zoomed higher on Thursday, turning the massive state oil producer into the world's first $2 trillion company and achieving the valuation long sought by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Shares of the Saudi oil monopoly jumped nearly 10% again on Thursday, reaching 38.55 riyals ($10.28) per share. It's a win for the company after a difficult IPO process that generated only muted interest from international investors.

Know this stat: Aramco is by far the most valuable company in the world, dwarfing runner up Apple, which is worth around $1.2 trillion.

But Aramco, which publicly listed a 1.5% sliver of its business, still has plenty of doubters. "Saudi Aramco is the largest, most profitable oil company in the world — but size is not everything," Bernstein analysts Neil Beveridge and Oswald Clint told clients Thursday, initiating coverage of the stock with an "underperform" rating.

Beveridge and Clint say that Aramco has been priced at a premium to competitors, but should trade at a discount given its comparatively weak dividend yield. They value Aramco at $1.36 trillion — nowhere near $2 trillion.

"Aramco could trade in a league of its own for some time, but the stock market is a weighing machine in the long term and the laws of economic gravity will eventually apply," they said.

OPEC's efforts to prop up prices may fail

An effort unveiled just last week by OPEC, Russia and other oil producing nations to support crude prices may fall flat, my CNN Business colleague Hanna Ziady reports.

That's according to the latest report from the International Energy Agency, which warned Thursday that deeper production cuts will not be enough to address a global supply glut.

Even if all the countries adhere to an agreement to deepen existing cuts by an additional 500,000 barrels per day — bringing total cuts to 1.7 million barrels daily — the agency predicts a surplus of 700,000 barrels per day in the first three months of next year.

This doesn't bode well for the price of oil. Brent crude, the global benchmark, is trading at roughly $64 per barrel. It was at $63 before the meeting. "The market has done its own sums and the reaction to oil's new deal has so far been muted," IEA said in its report.

UBS said in a recent note that it thinks Brent oil prices will stay in the $60 to $70 range due to compliance concerns, economic uncertainty and ambiguity in the outlook for US shale.

Up next

UK voters head to the polls for the country's third general election in four years. Follow along here for live updates.

Also today:

The European Central Bank makes its interest rate announcement at 7:45 a.m. ET, followed by President Christine Lagarde's first press conference.Adobe, Broadcom, Costco and Oracle report results after the bell.

Coming tomorrow: Markets respond to the UK election results.

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