Asia Keeps Calm as China Cools, Brexit News Awaited

TOKYO (Reuters) —
A man looks at an electronic stock board of a securities firm in Tokyo, Monday. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Asian markets kept their nerve on Monday as data showed the Chinese economy slowed at the end of last year, underlining the urgent need for more stimulus as Beijing wrestles with the United States over trade.

Investors are also waiting to hear British Prime Minister Theresa May’s ‘Plan B’ for Brexit which is due to be presented to Parliament later on Monday.

The world’s second-largest economy grew 6.4 percent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier, as had been expected, and matching levels last seen in early 2009 during the global financial crisis.

Yet there were some bright spots with industrial output rising a surprisingly strong 5.7 percent, while retail sales rose 8.2 percent in December, from a year earlier.

“Policy makers appear to be weighing up the medium term risks of further debt growth against short term trends – hence the relatively modest stimulatory policy thus far,” said Gerard Bung, a senior economist at NAB.

“They may be data-dependent for a couple of quarters to make any large move,” he said.

Markets reacted calmly, with MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan up 0.2 percent, after rising 1.6 percent last week.

Chinese blue chips gained 0.7 percent. Japan’s Nikkei added 0.3 percent, helped by a recent pullback in the yen. The Australian dollar, often used as a liquid proxy for China investments, nudged up to $0.7167.

E-Mini future for the S&P 500 eased 0.2 percent, though trade was light with the U.S. on holiday. Spreadbetters pointed to small opening gains for the major European bourses.

Chinese stocks had rallied on Friday on reports that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin discussed lifting some or all tariffs imposed on Chinese imports, a story later denied.

President Donald Trump said on Saturday there has been progress toward a trade deal with China, but denied that he was considering lifting tariffs.

“Things are going very well with China and with trade,” he told reporters at the White House. Chinese Vice Premier Liu He will visit the United States on Jan. 30 and 31 for the next round of talks with Washington.

Over in Britain, May will return to Parliament on Monday to set out how she plans to try to break the Brexit deadlock after her deal was rejected by lawmakers last week.

May told ministers on Sunday she was looking for ways to make the so-called Northern Irish backstop more acceptable to her Conservative Party and Northern Irish allies.

“We expect only incremental changes from “Plan A” given cross-party talks have fallen flat,” analysts at TD Securities wrote in a note.

“Amendments are likely to be introduced all week, with MPs pushing to cancel ‘No-Deal,’ introduce a second referendum, and perhaps push for a permanent customs union,” they added. “May will likely travel to Brussels to seek concessions from the EU.”

The uncertainty kept sterling sidelined at $1.2867, having briefly been as high as $1.3000 last week.

The dollar held firm on the yen at 109.61, while the euro was near the floor of its recent trading range at $1.1375 . Against a basket of currencies, the dollar was a shade softer at 96.295.

In commodity markets, spot gold was steady at $1,281.79 per ounce.

Oil prices extended their rally after OPEC detailed specifics on its production-cut activity to ease global oversupply.

Brent crude rose 24 cents to $62.94 a barrel. U.S. crude futures gained 23 cents to $54.03 a barrel.

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