Stocks Stumble After N. Korea Nuclear Test Rattles Markets

SINGAPORE/TOKYO (Reuters) -
A currency trader works at the foreign exchange dealing room of the KEB Hana Bank headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 14, 2016. Asian stocks surged Thursday in a second day of solid gains, buoyed by rallies on Wall Street and European markets, an uptick in China's trade and Singapore's unexpected easing of monetary policy.(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
A currency trader works at the foreign exchange dealing room of the KEB Hana Bank headquarters in Seoul, South Korea. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Asian stocks extended losses after North Korea conducted its fifth and most powerful nuclear test on Friday, heightening geopolitical tensions in the region at a time when investors are grappling with slowing global growth. North Korea’s nuclear test set off a blast that was more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, with the nation saying it had mastered the ability to mount a warhead on a ballistic missile.

Stocks were already on the back foot when the North Korean news rattled markets, with uncertainty over the prospect of further easing from the European Central Bank pressuring global equities and bonds.

European shares look set to follow Asia lower, with financial spreadbetters expecting Britain’s FTSE 100, Germany’s DAX and France’s CAC 40 to all open down 0.1 percent.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan dropped 0.5 percent after touching a 13-month high on Thursday. The decline shrunk gains for the week to 2.5 percent.

Japan’s Nikkei closed flat after pulling back earlier on reports of the North Korean nuclear test. It was up 0.2 percent for the week.

South Korea’s KOSPI also extended losses on its neighbour’s nuclear activity. After opening 0.7 percent lower, it was last trading down 1.3 percent from Thursday’s close.

China’s CSI 300 index was 0.25 percent lower, and the Shanghai Composite was down 0.2 percent. They are set for gains of 0.7 percent and 1 percent, respectively, for the week.

China’s consumer price inflation slowed to its weakest pace in almost a year in August, missing expectations.

Still, moderating declines in the producer price index added to recent evidence of a steadying economy. That evidence included data on Thursday showing China’s imports rose unexpectedly in August for the first time in nearly two years, suggesting domestic demand may be picking up. Exports also showed signs of improvement, falling less than expected.

Hong Kong was the sole gainer among major Asian ex-Japan markets, with shares up 1.4 percent, extending their weekly advance to 4.2 percent, the most in almost two months. The market has been buoyed by inflows from China as investors bet on gains ahead of the launch of a new cross-border share link.

On Thursday, European Central Bank (ECB) President Mario Draghi, speaking after the central bank kept its policy on hold as expected, said the ECB was looking at options to continue its money-printing program, but maintained the March end-date for asset purchases. That disappointed investors who were looking for more immediate action, including an extension or expansion of the current plan, or at least clearer hints of future actions.

“President Draghi’s comment that an extension of the current quantitative easing program was not discussed led to a hawkish market interpretation of the meeting,” Shane Oliver, head of investment strategy at AMP Capital in Sydney, wrote in a note.

However, inflation levels that remain below target and various other dovish comments from Draghi “indicate that an extension of the quantitative easing program beyond its March 2017 expiry at its December meeting is likely,” Oliver added.

Overnight on Wall Street, the S&P 500 lost 0.22 percent, weighed down by a 2.6 percent fall in Apple on disappointment over its latest iPhone, though gains in energy shares offset losses in most other sectors.

German shares bore the brunt of the ECB’s let-down, and France also retreated, but shares in Britain and Southern Europe gained.

Global bond markets also took a hit with the 10-year German Bund yield rising to minus 0.055 percent from minus 0.118 percent on Wednesday.

U.S. bond yields also jumped, with the 30-year bond yield rising to one-month highs of 2.328 percent on Thursday. They pulled back slightly to trade at 2.3102 on Friday.

The euro climbed to $1.1328, its highest since Aug. 26, following the ECB meeting before giving up most of its gains to stabilize around $1.1282. It is set for a 1.1 percent rise this week.

The dollar retreated 0.3 percent to 102.145 yen, surrendering some of Thursday’s gains resulting from the wider gap between U.S. and Japanese bond yields. It is poised to end the week 1.8 percent weaker.

With the ECB meeting out of the way, the focus now shifts back to the Fed’s policy meeting later this month.

“A rate hike in September is highly unlikely,” said Hiroko Iwaki, senior bond strategist at Mizuho Securities.

“But unless the Fed sends a message, it will be difficult for them to make the market’s price in a rate hike by the end of the year. So they could say something like they will consider a hike in coming months,” she said.

Oil prices pulled back after surging more than 4 percent on Thursday to two-week highs on a slump in U.S. Gulf Coast imports to a record low led to a surprisingly large drawdown in U.S. crude stocks.

Brent rose to as high as $50.14 per barrel on Thursday. It pulled back 0.9 percent to $49.54, still up 5.8 percent this week.

U.S. crude climbed as high as $47.75 on Thursday. It retreated 0.8 percent to $47.22, but remained on track for a 6.3 percent advance for the week.

The weakness in the U.S. dollar this week has offered gold a boost. Spot gold has risen 1 percent to $1,337.95 this week, the biggest weekly gain in six weeks.