Growth Woes, Trade Tension Douse Rally in Asian Shares

SYDNEY (Reuters) —
A man walks by an electronic stock board of a securities firm in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Asian stocks stepped back from near eight-month highs on Thursday and the dollar eased as cautious European and U.S. central banks reinforced investors’ worries about the slowing global economy and trade protectionism.

Spreadbetters pointed to a subdued start for Europe, with Eurostoxx 50 futures flat while futures for Germany’s Dax and London’s FTSE opened lower.

Risky assets have been volatile so far this year while bonds have rallied on fears of a recession in the United States and the possibility of a sharper slowdown in other major economies including the euro zone.

Also weighing on sentiment, President Donald Trump has escalated trade tensions by threatening new tariffs on goods from the European Union, even as the Sino-U.S. trade dispute remains unresolved.

All those risks pulled down Asian equities on Thursday.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan slipped 0.4% after four straight days of gains took it to the highest since last August. Japan’s Nikkei reversed early losses to end 0.1% higher.

Losses in Asia were led by Chinese shares, with the blue-chip CSI300 index off 1.7% while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index stumbled 0.7%.

Australian shares also lost ground, pressured by political uncertainty after the prime minister called a national election for May 18.

“Traders continue to operate in a ‘wait and watch’ mode as they look for the next opportunity in a cautious market,” said Nick Twidale, Sydney-based analyst at Rakuten Securities Australia. “Two big event risks are now behind us with the ECB and Fed.”

But, Twidale said, investors were still on the lookout for a trigger that would push markets out of their familiar trading ranges.

On Wednesday, the European Central Bank (ECB) kept its loose policy stance and warned that threats to global economic growth remained. The ECB has already pushed back its first post-crisis interest rate hike, and President Mario Draghi raised the prospect of more support for the struggling euro zone economy if its slowdown persisted.

“If, as we expect, growth in the euro zone continues to disappoint over the coming months, we think that ECB policymakers will adopt an even more accommodative stance,” analysts at Capital Economics wrote in a note.

While easy monetary conditions are generally a boon for equities as investors go hunting for yield, share price performance could take a hit if corporate earnings suffer in a slowing economy.

Separately, data showed U.S. consumer prices increased by the most in 14 months in March but underlying inflation remained benign against a backdrop of slowing global economic growth.

Minutes from a March 19-20 meeting of Federal Reserve policymakers showed they agreed to be patient about any changes to interest rate policy as they saw the U.S. economy weathering a global slowdown without a recession in the next few years.

In currencies, the British pound held on to gains after European leaders agreed to extend the deadline for the U.K. to leave the union to the end of October, averting a potential crash out of the bloc on Friday with no divorce deal but threatening more months of uncertainty.

Sterling has stayed in a triangle holding pattern between $1.2945 and $1.3380 during the past month or so. It was last at $1.3080.

The dollar index fell for a fourth straight day to 96.933 against a basket of major currencies. The euro was barely changed at $1.1275 while the Japanese yen was a shade weaker at 111.11 per dollar after three days of gains.

In commodities, Brent futures eased 27 cents to $71.46 a barrel. U.S. crude dipped 30 cents to $64.31.

Gold hovered near a two-week top on Thursday at $1,306.97 an ounce.

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