Asian shares slip, looming US-China trade talks in focus

A man sits in front of an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. (Reuters pic)

SYDNEY: Asian shares started the week on the backfoot as investors were unable to shake off worries about global growth, US politics and the Sino-US trade war, keeping the safe-haven dollar well bid near a six-week top against major currencies.

Chinese shares see-sawed on Monday after they resumed trading following a week-long Lunar New Year holiday.

The blue-chip index was last up 0.4%, Australian stocks were down 0.6% while South Korea eased 0.2%.

That left MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan off 0.1% after it was toppled from a four-month top on Friday.

Trading volumes are expected to be light with Japan on a public holiday.

Investors are now looking ahead to trade talks this week with a delegation of US officials travelling to China for the next round of negotiations.

“After we went home on Friday, Asian equities closed the week weaker… reflecting an increased level of apprehension on whether or not the US and China can find an agreement to de-escalate their trade tensions ahead of the March 1st deadline,” said Rodrigo Catril, senior forex strategist at National Australia Bank.

“US-led trade uncertainty along with increasing concerns over the extent of the current global growth slowdown has seen an increase in demand for core global bonds,” Catril said.

“Against a backdrop of uncertainty and despite a Fed that is comfortably on hold, the dollar continues to win the least ugly contest.”

The US Federal Reserve has signalled patience on policy after it delivered four hikes in 2018, citing growing economic risks from a slowdown in global growth.

The dollar index held near a six-week high around 96.625 against a basket of currencies, after notching up its strongest weekly gain in six months as traders piled into the greenback in a safe-haven move.

The collapse in talks between US Democrat and Republican lawmakers over the weekend amid a clash over immigrant detention policy raised fears of another government shutdown.

That development was yet another worry for markets already under strain from a drumroll of gloomy news on the global economy.

Last week, the European Commission sharply downgraded eurozone growth for this year and next and US President Donald Trump added to the anxiety with a declaration that he had no plans to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping before the March 1 deadline to achieve a trade deal.

“Growth is probably the big area of risk – the US is still on a healthy track but China stabilisation is more hope than reality at the moment while European momentum continues to soften,” JPMorgan analysts said in a note.

“Investors have plenty to be nervous about, including the ongoing growth softness in Europe and the risk this drags the other major geographies down with it.”

The rising pressure on growth means the near term fortunes of the equity markets will partly depend on earnings from major US companies.

These include Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Walmart, Home Depot, Macy’s and Gap for further clues about the health of the consumer sector.

Analysts now expect first-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies to decline 0.1% from a year earlier, which would be the first such quarterly profit decline since 2016, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.

Elsewhere, the euro was barely changed at US$1.1324 after five straight days of losses took it to more than 2 weeks lows. Sterling dithered at US$1.2934.

The Australian dollar inched up from Friday’s one-month lows although sentiment was still cautious after the country’s central bank opened the door to a possible rate cut.

Oil prices slipped on concerns about slowing global demand amid a pick-up in US drilling activity.

US crude was 73 cents weaker at US$51.99 per barrel while Brent fell 69 cents to US$61.41.