By Georgi Kantchev
Global stocks inched higher Thursday amid signs that U.S. President Donald Trump's trade tariff plans might be softened with exemptions for key partners.
The Stoxx Europe 600 was up 0.2% in early morning trade while Asian markets gained across the board. On Wall Street, futures pointed to a flat opening for the S&P 500.
Stock prices have been under pressure this week as investors tried to gauge the impact from recent U.S. protectionist rhetoric and after Mr. Trump's economic adviser Gary Cohn resigned from the White House.
U.S. officials said Wednesday the plan to impose new tariffs on steel and aluminum -- which Mr. Trump is expected to sign this week -- would exempt Canada and Mexico at the outset. The two countries would remain free of the new tariffs if they successfully concluded negotiations rewriting the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"Let's be very clear. We're not looking to get into trade wars," said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
But investors say volatility, which spiked in February on concerns about rising inflation, will remain elevated as details about the trade plan continue to trickle out.
"We're generally in a more volatile environment and the market will be sensitive to any headlines," said Randy Warren, chief investment officer of Philadelphia-based Warren Financial.
The U.S. trade moves come as the global economy is experiencing a rare spurt of synchronized growth. That has underpinned gains in stock markets last year and in the beginning of 2018.
"The underlying thesis of a strong economy and solid earnings is still rock solid," Mr. Warren said. "The market doesn't like trade wars or anything that could change that thesis."
The 10-year Treasury yield was broadly unchanged at 2.883%. Yields rise as prices fall. The WSJ Dollar Index, which tracks the dollar against a basket of 16 currencies, was up 0.2%.
Traders are also watching Thursday's European Central Bank meeting, Friday's policy statement from the Bank of Japan and the end-of-week employment report out of the U.S.
At their meeting, ECB officials might take a baby step toward ending their giant bond-buying program, known as quantitative easing, by dropping a pledge to accelerate its bond purchases again if the economy deteriorates. ECB President Mario Draghi will discuss the results of their deliberations at a press conference at 8:30 a.m. EST.
"While we do not expect the central bank to make major changes to its outlook and its forward guidance, the Q&A session might become a tightrope walk" for Mr. Draghi, analysts at UniCredit said in a note.
In Asia, the Nikkei Stock Average ended up 0.5% after Japanese economic growth data was revised sharply higher. Fourth-quarter expansion has now been put at 1.6% on an annualized basis, compared with a preliminary estimate of 0.5%.
Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index, which had seen some of the week's biggest declines, finished up 1.5%.
In commodities, Brent oil futures were down 0.2% after government data showed U.S. output hit fresh record highs last week. Gold was down 0.2%.
Ese Erheriene contributed to this article.
Write to Georgi Kantchev at email@example.com