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Hong Kong — Asian shares edged higher in choppy trading on Thursday, helped by advances in Chinese real estate shares, though fears about the Covid-19 Omicron variant capped gains regionally.
Also weighing on share markets were remarks from Fed Chair Jerome Powell reiterating that he and fellow policymakers will consider a faster wind-down to the Fed’s bond-buying programme, a move widely seen as opening the door to earlier interest rates hikes.
This helped support the dollar, which despite the cautious mood gained ground on the yen, typically seen as an even safer haven than the US currency.
MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan advanced 0.2%, boosted by Chinese blue chips up 0.25% and Hong Kong up 0.2%.
An index of Hong Kong-listed mainland developers rose 2% after news late on Wednesday that Chinese developers plan to sell bonds in China to raise a combined 18-billion yuan, evidence Beijing is marginally easing liquidity strains on the cash-strapped sector.
However, Japan’s Nikkei lost 0.6%, and all three main Wall Street benchmarks fell more than 1% overnight as a global rally petered out as news about the Omicron variant of the coronavirus turned negative.
Omicron is rapidly becoming the dominant variant of the coronavirus in SA less than four weeks after it was first detected there, and on Wednesday the US became the latest country to identify an Omicron case within its borders.
“All that anyone can do at the moment is wait for each headline as it breaks, as there are a series of outstanding questions about the new variant that remain largely unanswered and will remain unanswered for days or weeks,” said Kyle Rodda an analyst at Melbourne brokerage IG markets.
He added that with the Federal Reserve reducing its stimulus and building up to raising rates, “this is the first time in a really long time when markets haven’t taken a bad development as another excuse to buy stocks expecting an increase in liquidity from the Fed”.
In another sign of a flight to safety, long-dated US treasury yields slid late in US hours. The yield on 30-year bonds dropped to as low as 1.740%, their lowest since early January, and benchmark 10-year yields dropped to as low as 1.404% — a nine-week low.
Yields at the short end of the curve were steadier on chances that the US Federal Reserve will speed up its bond purchase tapering.
On Wednesday, in his second day of testimony to Congress, Powell said the Fed needs to be ready to respond to the possibility that inflation may not recede in the second half of 2022 as most forecasters expect.
This would likely lead to an acceleration in the pace at which the Fed tapers its asset purchase programme.
“We now expect the [Fed’s policy committee] to finish asset purchases in April 2022 and start hiking the funds rate in June 2022,” said analysts at CBA in a morning note.
The dollar index was steady, though the US currency rose about 0.25% to ¥113, regaining a little of its recent losses, thanks to the hawkish tone.
The risk-sensitive Australian dollar languished at $0.7114, not far from Tuesday’s low of $0.7063, its weakest since early November of 2020.
Oil prices also rebounded, albeit after a strong sell-off in recent days based on fears the new variant will hit travel.
Brent crude futures gained 0.9% to $69.48 a barrel, and US crude futures gained 0.76% to $66.08 a barrel, though still in sight of Tuesday’s over three-month low.
Spot gold slid 0.12% to $1,780/oz.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.