Asian Stocks Retreat From Nearly 2-Year Peak, Dollar Firms

TOKYO (Reuters) -
People look at an electronic stock board of a securities firm in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Asian stocks turned lower on Thursday after earlier briefly nudging up to near two-year highs, while the dollar benefited from waning expectations that the European Central Bank was poised to end its easy policy.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was down 0.3 percent, stepping back from morning trade when it nudged close to its loftiest levels since June 2015.

Australian shares firmed 0.3 percent, helped by an overnight gain in oil prices. Strong energy shares had helped the U.S. S&P 500 end higher overnight.

The Federal Reserve’s monetary outlook and policymaking under President Donald Trump have held sway in financial markets over the past few months. While investors have more or less come to terms with rising rates in the United States, concerns remain around the Trump administration’s ability to set U.S. growth on a higher gear.

Last week’s failure of President Trump’s health care reform bill reinforced those doubts.

The dollar index, which tracks the U.S. currency against a basket of six major rivals, was up 0.1 percent on the day at 100.060. It was lifted to a one-week high overnight as the euro slipped on concerns about the impact of Brexit as well as news that ECB policymakers are keen to reassure investors that their easy-money policy is far from ending.

The euro was down 0.1 percent at $1.0750, after Reuters reported ECB policymakers were wary of changing their policy message after tweaks this month upset investors and raised chances of a surge in borrowing costs. Prime Minister Theresa May formally began Britain’s exit from the European Union on Wednesday, launching a two-year negotiation process before the divorce comes into effect in late March 2019.

Sterling edged up slightly on the day to $1.2445 after skidding to a one-week low of $1.2377 overnight.

“Brexit, to some extent, has been covered in the market already. People went short, covered, and went short again,” said Kaneo Ogino, director at foreign exchange research firm Global-info Co in Tokyo.

“As for the dollar, demand is still steady from pure commercial orders, but the Japanese fiscal year ends this week and Tokyo investors don’t want to take new positions,” Ogino said.

Against the yen, the dollar added 0.2 percent to 111.27, well above this week’s low of 110.110, its lowest since Nov. 18, following President Trump’s health care reform blow.

Despite the dollar’s gains on the day, it was far lower than levels above 115 yen hit a few weeks ago, and Japan’s Nikkei stock index slipped 0.3 percent.

“Investors have bought Japanese stocks mainly because of the strong dollar-yen trend. President Trump’s health care defeat threw a wet blanket on the Japan market’s rally since last November,” said Takuya Takahashi, a strategist at Daiwa Securities.

Japanese stocks soared more than 10 percent since President Trump’s election on hopes his administration would boost U.S. economic growth to 3 percent or even higher.

The health care setback raised fears that President Trump might face challenges in getting his promised stimulus and tax reform policies passed as well, which pressured the greenback and U.S. Treasury yields.

But underpinning the dollar, Chicago Federal Reserve President Charles Evans, a voter on the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee, said on Wednesday he supports further interest rate hikes this year given progress on the Fed’s goals of full employment and stable inflation.

Comments from Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren and San Francisco Fed President John Williams also backed multiple rate hikes, though those officials are non-FOMC voters.

“There’s a huge political fog around the world, in Asia, in the U.S., but underneath it, there’s actually quite a decent economic recovery. And that’s what’s driving markets more than the worries about politics,” said Sean Taylor, Asia Pacific chief investment officer at Deutsche Asset Management.

“The U.S. is continuing to do well. Europe isn’t doing as badly as it was and because of the commodity pickup last year, emerging markets are doing okay,” he said.

U.S. crude futures edged down 0.1 percent to $49.48 a barrel in Asian trading, while Brent crude futures eased 0.1 percent to $52.35.

Oil prices had surged more than 2 percent on Wednesday as U.S. crude inventories grew less than expected, supply disruptions continued in Libya and the OPEC-led output cut looked likely to be extended.