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Shares weaken as China slumps; dollar firms after muted reaction to G20

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[February 24, 2014]  By Lisa Twaronite

TOKYO (Reuters) — Asian stocks dropped and the dollar firmed on Monday, as investors looked past the Group of 20's latest commitment to spur faster global growth and turned their focus back to the impact of the U.S. Federal Reserve's stimulus withdrawal.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan <.MIAPJ0000PUS> shed 0.6 percent, while Japan's Nikkei stock average <.N225> added 0.1 percent, paring earlier gains.

"We are not out of the woods yet in terms of getting clarity on which direction this market is going," said Stefan Worrall, director of equity cash sales at Credit Suisse in Tokyo, noting the market was not convincingly out of a potential correction phase.

China shares sank to a two-week low, dragging Hong Kong markets down, as property and banking counters slipped on mainland news reports that stoked fears banks have stopped extending loans to property-related companies.

On Wall Street on Friday, stocks were off slightly on options-related expirations.

The final weekend communiqué from the two-day meeting of G20 finance ministers and central bankers in Sydney said they would increase investment and employment, generating more than $2 trillion in additional output over five years while creating tens of million of new jobs, signaling optimism that the worst of crisis-era austerity was past.

The communiqué acknowledged emerging nations' concerns that the Federal Reserve consider the impact of its monetary stimulus withdrawal, which has led to bouts of capital flight from some of those markets.

However, minutes released last week from the Fed's most recent meeting showed that policymakers generally "anticipated that the economy would expand at a moderate pace in coming quarters," suggesting the pace of stimulus-tapering will continue for now.

"There was no realistic expectation that EM would get any relief but they may be more vulnerable to bad news in the aftermath." said Steven Englander, head of G10 currency FX strategy at CitiFX, in a note to clients.

"Similarly the free pass to tapering may be mildly USD positive," Englander added.

The dollar edged up against a basket of currencies after posting its first weekly gain in three weeks. The dollar index <.DXY> rose about 0.1 percent to 80.278, moving away from last week's low of 79.927 touched on Wednesday, which was its lowest since late last year

The dollar was steady on the day against its Japanese counterpart at 102.49 yen, not far from a three-week high of 102.82 yen hit on Friday.

The euro drifted down about 0.1 percent to 140.74 yen, after touching 141.26 yen on Friday, its loftiest level since January 24.

The yen is likely to remain under pressure on expectations of more easing steps from the Bank of Japan.

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A Reuters poll last week showed the BOJ was expected to ease monetary policy further by the summer, to give the economy a lift as the effects of the government's stimulus begins to wane. Economists surveyed remain skeptical that the central bank will achieve its 2 percent inflation target by early next year.

The euro was nearly flat on the day at $1.3736, not far from a high of $1.3773 touched on Wednesday, its highest level since January 2.

Also underpinning the single currency, unrest in the Ukraine reached a climatic end over the weekend with parliament's vote on Saturday to remove President Viktor Yanukovich, who abandoned his Kiev office to protesters. The shift looks likely to pull Ukraine away from Moscow's orbit and closer to Europe.

Investors await euro zone inflation on Friday to gauge whether the European Central Bank has enough ammunition to ease monetary policy at its next meeting on March 6.

"The weaker the data, the more the speculation will likely mount that the ECB will take additional action," Marc Chandler, chief global currency strategist with Brown Brothers Harriman, said in a research note.

"The point is that between the data, ECB meeting and the U.S. employment data on March 7, there is sufficient event risk to deter strong euro gains from here," Chandler said.

On the commodities front, U.S. crude rose 0.3 percent to $102.52 a barrel after posting a sixth straight week of gains, while Brent crude added 0.2 percent to $110.05 a barrel.

But London copper fell sharply, shedding about 1.3 percent to $7,065, on persistent fears about the impact of the Fed's tapering as well as China's murky growth outlook.

Gold lost about 0.1 percent to $1,321.08 an ounce, after it marked a third straight week of gains.

(Additional reporting by Tomo Uetake in Tokyo; editing by Shri Navaratnam and Jacqueline Wong)

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