Asian markets swing as traders assess rates outlook

Agence France-Presse
Asian markets swing as traders assess rates outlook
An electronic board displays stock prices of companies listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in Tokyo on March 4, 2024.
Photo by Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP

HONG KONG, China — Asian markets were mixed Thursday as investors tried to gauge the outlook for US interest rates, while also keeping tabs on developments in France as it heads for crucial elections.

With Wall Street closed, there were few catalysts to drive buying, though sentiment has been buoyed this week by recent data indicating the world's top economy is slowing gradually, giving the Federal Reserve some freedom to ease monetary policy.

Traders are closely following the utterances of US central bank officials on their outlook for rates, with most warning that while inflation was on a downward trajectory, they wanted to see more evidence before committing to a cut.

Analysts say this means there will be two reductions at most, with many predicting just one this year -- in line with the Fed's "dot plot" gauge released last week.

While there is a level of uncertainty over rates, equity markets have enjoyed plenty of support, with dealers optimistic that borrowing costs will come down eventually as prices are brought under control, the economy eases and the jobs market loosens.

However, there is some concern that the rally, which has been largely driven by a voracious appetite for tech and all things related to artificial intelligence, could see a correction at some point.

Chris Weston at Pepperstone Group in Melbourne said there is some talk about what could cause this, warning that "all is not so rosy under the hood, where index market breadth has been poor, with participation underwhelming, suggesting the rally has been built on a shaky foundation".

"It has simply been a tough trade to bet against AI in its various guises -- so until we lose these behemoths then pullbacks at an index level will likely be shallow and well-supported."

Shares in Tokyo, Seoul, Wellington, Taipei, Mumbai and Jakarta edged up but Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sydney, Bangkok, Manila and Singapore were in the red.

London and Frankfurt rose in the morning.

Paris was also up as traders eyed developments in France ahead of polls at the end of the month, with President Emmanuel Macron's centrist alliance in third place behind far-right and left parties.

There are fears for the French economy -- the European Union's second biggest -- as both leading parties have pledged to spend huge sums at a time when the country needs to make cuts, potentially putting Paris on course for a standoff with the bloc.

On Wednesday, the European Union's executive arm reprimanded France for breaching Brussels' budget rules -- the first time it has been put in the sin bin since Macron rose to power in 2017.

Investors are also awaiting a Bank of England policy decision later in the day, when it is expected to stand pat on rates at a 16-year high owing to ongoing price risks, analysts said.

That is despite data Wednesday showing headline consumer inflation had finally come down to the bank's two percent target.

Julian Jessop, at the Institute of Economic Affairs think tank, added that officials would likely sit tight because services inflation remained well above two percent, while energy bills are set to rise towards the end of the year.

However, Neil Wilson at Finalto trading group said: "I fail to see any reason for the Bank to be holding off any longer -- time to take a leaf out of the ECB playbook and trim some of the restriction."

On currency markets, the euro remained under pressure against the dollar owing to France's political uncertainty, while Switzerland's franc dipped against the greenback after the country's central bank cut interest rates for the second successive meeting.

Key figures around 0810 GMT 

Tokyo - Nikkei 225: UP 0.2 percent at 38,633.02 (close)

Hong Kong - Hang Seng Index: DOWN 0.5 percent at 18,335.32 (close)

Shanghai - Composite: DOWN 0.4 percent at 3,005.44 (close)

London - FTSE 100: UP 0.2 at 8,224.85

Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.0727 from $1.0745 on Wednesday

Euro/pound: UP at 84.41 pence from 84.44 pence

Dollar/yen: UP at 158.23 yen from 157.90 yen

Pound/dollar: DOWN at $1.2708 from $1.2726

West Texas Intermediate: FLAT at $81.54 per barrel

Brent North Sea Crude: FLAT at $85.05 per barrel

New York - Dow: Closed for a public holiday

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