Stocks mixed after selloff as Fed, Middle East dampen sentiment

HONG KONG: Asian markets were mixed Wednesday as Federal Reserve boss Jerome Powell’s indication that interest rates could stay higher for longer offset a rebound following the latest bout of Middle East-fuelled selling.

RUICHANG: An employee works at a factory that produces charging stations for electric cars in Ruichang, in central China’s Jiangxi province on April 17, 2024. – AFP

RUICHANG: An employee works at a factory that produces charging stations for electric cars in Ruichang, in central China’s Jiangxi province on April 17, 2024. – AFP.

While traders are nervously awaiting Zionists’ next move after Iran’s missile and drone attack at the weekend, the lack of an immediate response has seen them focus on the US central bank’s monetary policy plans. A string of hotter-than-expected data on inflation and jobs in the first three months has forced investors to whittle down their bets on how many interest rate cuts the Fed will make this year.

And Powell all but confirmed that borrowing costs will likely have to remain elevated longer than previously hoped. “The recent data have clearly not given us greater confidence and instead indicate that is likely to take longer than expected to achieve that confidence,” he warned Tuesday in Washington. “Given the strength of the labor market and progress on inflation so far, it is appropriate to allow restrictive policy further time to work and let the data and the evolving outlook guide us.”

The bank’s most recent “dot plot” guidance for rates suggested it will cut three times this year, with June eyed for the first. Traders had priced in as many as six cuts at the start of the year. But observers are now predicting just one or two at best - starting in July or September - with some even arguing that the next move could be a hike if inflation refuses to come back down to the Fed’s two percent target. Powell’s remarks chime with those of several officials at the Fed, who have urged caution on when to begin normalizing rates.

Richmond Fed chief Thomas Barkin said Tuesday that the recent run of indicators had not supported the idea of a soft landing for the economy, while Fed Vice Chair Philip Jefferson saw inflation coming down but rates remaining elevated for now owing to price pressures. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq both fell in New York, though the Dow eked out a gain. Asia was mixed, with Tokyo, Sydney, Seoul, Jakarta and Bangkok down but Shanghai, Singapore, Wellington, Taipei and Manila rising. Hong Kong was flat. London edged up in the morning, with data showing Britain’s annual inflation rate fell less than expected last month. Paris and Frankfurt were also higher.

US Fed’s credibility

“The hawkish tone from Powell didn’t come as much of a surprise, considering the persistent inflationary challenges, the robust state of the US economy, and the Fed’s commitment to data-driven decision-making,” said Stephen Innes of SPI Asset Management. “Anything short of reaffirming the ‘higher for longer’ would likely have raised even more questions about the Fed’s credibility.” The dollar’s recent rally stalled despite Powell’s comments, though it remains elevated against its peers, including the yen, South Korean won and Indian rupee.

South Korea said Wednesday that its finance minister had met his Japanese counterpart to discuss the recent weakness of their currencies, agreeing to take “appropriate actions” to counter extreme volatility. Seoul issued a rare warning Tuesday, saying authorities were carefully monitoring currency movements as the won briefly touched a critical level of 1,400 per dollar for the first time in 17 months.

That came after officials in Tokyo said they were ready to intervene in forex markets to support the yen, which is sitting around a 34-year low. South Korean Finance Minister Choi Sang-mok and Japan’s Shunichi Suzuki “shared serious concerns about the recent significant depreciation of the Japanese yen and the Korean won”, Seoul’s finance ministry said in a statement. Traders are keeping an eye on developments in the Middle East after Zionist army chief General Herzi Halevi warned that there would be a response to Iran’s barrage on Saturday, fuelling worries of a region-wide conflict.

Tehran said the attack was in retaliation for a strike on the consular annex of its Damascus embassy that killed seven Revolutionary Guards, though it said: “The matter can be deemed concluded”. While on edge for any further escalation, trading floors are relatively calm Wednesday, with oil prices edging down despite the crises in the Middle East, Ukraine and OPEC output cuts. “Our base case is one where tensions remain contained (in the Middle East), avoiding a wider conflict that disrupts oil supply,” said Han Zhong Liang of Standard Chartered. — AFP.