Asian markets struggle as strong economic data fuels rate hike concerns

Singapore — Asian stock markets were pinned near seven-week lows on Thursday, while the dollar stood at multiweek peaks, as a run of strong economic data had investors worrying interest rates will need to keep rising and stay high to put the brakes on inflation.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan touched its lowest since January 6 in early trade. It ground 0.5% higher as the morning wore on. Nasdaq futures rose 0.9% after a revenue beat at chip designer Nvidia sent its shares up 9% after-hours.

Oil nursed sharp overnight losses, and Brent crude futures clung to support about $80 a barrel on Thursday.

Japanese markets were closed for a national holiday.

Wall Street indexes fell overnight and are eyeing their worst week of the year so far as stronger-than-forecast US labour, inflation, retail sales and manufacturing figures have traders pricing interest rates staying higher for longer.

Minutes from this month’s Federal Reserve meeting — reinforcing a hawkish tone — did little to shift the concern.

“Markets have been forced to reprice interest rate expectations, not just higher, but also questioning the view that once peak rates are hit, central banks will pivot quickly to cutting interest rates,” said ANZ economist Finn Robinson.

“Economic resilience is to be lauded,” he said.

“But central banks are uncomfortable with current levels of aggregate expenditure and labour market demand … if the upcoming run of February data for the US confirm robust economic activity, it is difficult to see how risk will recover in the near term.”

S&P 500 futures drifted 0.4% higher in Asia.

The Bank of Korea did, however, offer some dose of relief by ending a year-long run of uninterrupted rate hikes with a pause.

The Kospi rose 1% and led gains in the region with most other markets drifting.

Results season drove stock movements in Australia. Flag-carrier Qantas Airways posted a record first-half profit, but shares suffered their biggest drop in a year — down 7.3% — after the company warned fares would probably fall.

“The market is stretched, so they’ll panic on shadows,” said Mathan Somasundaram, founder at analytics firm Deep Data Analytics in Sydney.

“We are seeing more and more evidence that consumers are stretched, consumer spending is going to be curbed,” he said, pointing to a strong result from grocer Woolworths that suggested more people are cooking as restaurant prices rise.

Currency trade was quietened by Japan’s holiday. The dollar lingered near its strongest levels since early January, though without being able to break to fresh highs.

The Australian and New Zealand dollars moved a little higher off strong support levels, with the Aussie last up 0.4% to $0.6832 and the kiwi up by the same margin to $0.6242.

The euro steadied at $1.0619 while the yen, which has been grinding lower, last traded at 134.80 per dollar.

Speculation is rife that a policy change is nigh in Japan. Inflation data due on Friday and a Monday appearance from Bank of Japan (BOJ) governor nominee Kazuo Ueda are seen offering clues to the timing.

US treasuries rallied overnight, but a hawkish tone in the Fed minutes knocked the wind out of gains. Ten-year notes were untraded in Asia due to the holiday in Tokyo.

Gold steadied at $1,825/oz.

Final European inflation and US growth figures are due later in the day, though no major tweaks to preliminary numbers are expected. Fed officials Mary Daly and Raphael Bostic are also due to make appearances later on Thursday.