Asia stocks shaky ahead of Fed, yen hits 4-month low

By Thomson Reuters Mar 19, 2024 | 9:14 PM

By Stella Qiu

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Asian shares were hesitant on Wednesday on concerns the Federal Reserve could signal a slower path of rate cuts this year, while the yen plumbed a fresh four-month low on expectations that policy in Japan will remain accommodative for a while longer.

Tokyo’s Nikkei is closed for a holiday in Japan, but the yen’s weakness lifted Nikkei futures by 0.6%, a day after the Bank of Japan ended years of negative interest rates in a well-telegraphed move.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan eked out a gain of 0.2%. Australia’s resources heavy shares was 0.3% higher, while China’s blue chips slipped 0.2% and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index fell 0.5%.

China’s central bank left its benchmark lending rates unchanged on Wednesday, as widely expected.

The dollar gained 0.2% to 151.16 yen, a fresh four-month high, and moved closer to the 152 level that prompted Japanese authorities to intervene to stem the currency’s slide in late 2022. It slumped about 1.1% overnight.

While Japan’s historic shift away from negative interest rates and massive stimulus ushered in a new era of economic policy for the nation, analysts expect the BOJ’s monetary normalisation to proceed at a glacial pace. That has meant an extended lifespan for the popular carry trades where investors borrow yen to buy higher yielding currencies.

“On currencies, it is clear that the BOJ tightening has done nothing to shake a belief in carry,” said Alan Ruskin, global head of G10 FX strategy at Deutsche Bank.

With BOJ out of the way, focus is now squarely on the Federal Reserve policy meeting outcome later in the day where the risk is the new economic projections – the dot plot – could signal just two interest rate cuts, down from three, or a later start to the policy easing.

Ruskin expects the dot plot and the message from Fed Chair Jerome Powell at the post-meeting press conference to err on the slightly hawkish side, which would be positive for the U.S. dollar.

“It is doubtful that Powell will do anything to dent U.S. led risk sufficiently to warrant a rethink on carry that has centered on short yen, versus long high yielding Latam.”

Markets have pushed back the timing for the first Fed cut to June, and maybe even July, due to recent data showing inflation has remained sticky.

Goldman Sachs expects the Fed would also debate about the level of neutral rate. The bank estimates the long-run neutral rate to be at the 3.25-3.5% range, higher than the widely thought 2-2.5%.

A slew of European Central Bank officials including Christine Lagarde will be speaking later in the day. Some officials have endorsed June as the likely month to start discussing ECB rate cuts.

In the foreign exchange market, the euro and the Australian dollar gained new ground on the yen. The euro hit 164.34 yen, the highest since 2008, while the Aussie fetched 98.72 yen, just a notch below a nine-year high.

Oil prices retreated from multi-month highs on a strong dollar. Brent eased 0.2% to $87.19 a barrel, while U.S. crude lost 0.4% to $83.18 per barrel.

Gold prices were steady at $2,156.08 per ounce, some distance away from the record high of $2194.99 hit earlier this month.

(Reporting by Stella Qiu; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)