Asian stocks battle as focus turns to the US Fed
Traders await Fed chair Jerome Powell’s speech at a gathering of central bankers
Tokyo — Asian shares struggled to make headway on Friday as uncertainty over how much further the US Federal Reserve would cut interest rates added to investors’ worries over slowing global growth.
With a trade war between the US and China dragging on, and political tumult in Hong Kong, Italy and Britain adding to the tense backdrop, investors were keenly awaiting Fed chair Jerome Powell’s speech at a gathering of central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, later in the day (2pm GMT).
MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan edged 0.1% higher and was up 0.8% for the week, on track to break a four-week losing streak.
Japan’s benchmark Nikkei added 0.3% and Australian stocks rose 0.3%.
The Shanghai Composite and the blue-chip CSI 300 were up 0.5% and 0.7%, respectively, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng gained 0.5%.
Business surveys on Thursday suggested further slowing in advanced economies in August, but service sector activity remained resilient, offsetting some of the drag from weak manufacturing.
“It's going to be another wait-and-see day for traders ahead of Powell’s Jackson Hole speech. Investors are hoping for some soothing words from him,” said Hirokazu Kabeya, chief global strategist at Daiwa Securities.
Wall Street stocks were mixed on Thursday, with the S&P 500 closing little changed, while the Dow was up 0.2% and the Nasdaq falling 0.4%.
In the US bond market, the closely watched two-year, 10-year Treasury yield curve briefly moved back into inversion overnight, a shift that also occurred last week and sent financial markets into a tailspin amid worries of a sharp global downturn.
An inversion in the US yield curve has presaged several past US recessions, raising fears the decade-long expansion in the world’s biggest economy might be nearing its end.
While markets overwhelmingly expect the Fed to follow up its first rate cut in a decade with more stimulus at its meeting next month, some policymakers disagree.
Kansas City Fed president Esther George, who dissented against the decision to ease in July, and Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker, who said he “reluctantly” supported the cut, both said the US economy does not need more stimulus at this point.
Dallas Fed president Robert Kaplan said the businesses had become much more cautious due to surprises on trade policy and he was “going to at least be open-minded about making some adjustment” if he sees continued weakness.
All of that has made Powell’s speech in Jackson Hole pivotal for markets as they look for any clues on future easing, after the Fed in July cut rates for the first time since the financial crisis.
Any indications of hawkishness in the Fed chief’s comments might hurt riskier assets, though the dollar stands to benefit.
The greenback slipped on Thursday, but moved within narrow ranges. In early Asian trading, the dollar was up 0.1% against a basket of major currencies to 98.293.
The euro also was little changed against US currency at $1.1073. A survey showing a surprise uptick in eurozone business growth for August was offset somewhat by trade war fears knocking future expectations to their weakest in over six years.
The pound jumped to a three-week high of $1.2273 overnight after traders interpreted comments from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to mean that a solution to the Irish border problem could be found before Britain leaves the EU on October 31.
Merkel on Wednesday challenged Britain to come up with alternatives to the Irish border backstop within 30 days, but French President Emmanuel Macron cautioned there would be no renegotiation of the Brexit deal. Sterling last quoted at $1.2234, 0.1% weaker on the day.
China’s yuan extended losses, threatening to stoke trade tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Spot yuan slid to as low as 7.0992/$, its weakest since March 2008, although the central bank set the midpoint rate at 7.0572, its weakest level in 11 and a half years, but was much stronger than traders had expected.
Washington labelled China a currency manipulator early this month after a sharp slide in the yuan.
Concern about China’s economy is growing because US tariffs on about $150bn of Chinese goods will take affect from September 1.
Oil prices weakened overnight, with both Brent crude and US West Texas Intermediate down 0.6% each, on worries about the global economy.
Brent crude was last up 0.3% at $60.11 per barrel and WTI crude added 0.2% to $55.46.
Gold prices dipped on Thursday but held near the pivotal level of $1,500/oz, underpinned by demand for the precious metal amid uncertainties around monetary policy, trade and geopolitical tensions. Spot gold was last down 0.2% at $1,494.99/oz.