Holiday-hit Asian markets mixed, Wall St record fails to inspire

HONG KONG   -  Asian markets were mixed in holiday-thinned trade Friday as investors struggled to build on another record-setting day on Wall Street, with focus on the upcoming release of key US inflation data.

US equities have continued their march higher this week as strong earnings from big-name firms and data showing resilience in the world’s num­ber one economy helped over­come Federal Reserve warn­ings that interest rates will not come down as early as hoped.

Figures released Thursday showing below-expectation US jobless claims reinforced the view that the labour market re­mained in good health despite interest rates sitting at two-de­cade highs, but gave the central bank room to hold borrowing costs where they are for longer.

Revisions to the consumer price index due Friday will be pored over and followed by new data for January, with an above-forecast reading seen as justifying the monetary policy­makers’ reluctance to cut just yet. Richmond Fed president Thomas Barkin joined several of his counterparts Thursday in urging patience on cut­ting rates, adding that “no one wants inflation to re-emerge”.

He said the healthy run of data on the economy -- particu­larly the labour market -- had given the bank time to become confident that the slowdown in inflation is assured. “For now the claims stats continue to suggest there are no firing pressures emerging in the US labour market,” said National Australia Bank’s Rodrigo Catril.

However, he warned: “That said many US commentators note that there is a meaning­ful risk claims will rise over coming months, amid a burst in layoff announcements (in­cluding from Deloitte, Amazon and Tesla, among others).” Wall Street’s three main indexes eked out fresh gains, with the S&P 500 breaking 5,000 points for the first time towards the end of trade, before edging back but still finishing at an all-time high. With much of Asia either closed or enjoying half days as a long Lunar New Year weekend approaches, trading activity was limited.

That saw Hong Kong tumble again, at the end of a vola­tile week in which the Hang Seng Index surged on China’s pledges of market support, and then retreat owing to a lack of detail from officials. Singapore and Wellington also fell. Tokyo rose on a weaker yen and a soaring SoftBank after the firm reported strong earnings. Sydney, Mumbai and Bangkok were also up. Shang­hai, Seoul, Taipei and Jakarta were closed for holidays.

While China is now in holi­day mode, investors are keep­ing tabs on Beijing, hoping for fresh measures to boost market confidence or even hints of growth-driving help for the country’s stuttering economy. News that consumer prices fell at their sharpest pace since 2009 added to the gloom, and ramped up pres­sure on officials to address the crisis head-on with a big-time “bazooka” stimulus pack­age. However, observers were sceptical that anything major would be forthcoming.

Analysts at Eurasia Group said the replacement of the chairman of China’s markets regulator “demonstrates that the political impulse remains to tighten administrative controls rather than address fundamen­tal problems facing the econo­my. The move “entrenches the sense of malaise and weighs on confidence”. Stephen Innes at SPI Asset Management added: “There is growing consensus that the central government must take decisive action... to address China’s economic chal­lenges. Urgent action is needed to restore confidence and stim­ulate economic growth.”

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