Asian markets tread cautiously ahead of US stimulus, jobs

People wearing surgical masks walk past a screen showing Nikkei index outside a brokerage in Tokyo. — Reuters pic
People wearing surgical masks walk past a screen showing Nikkei index outside a brokerage in Tokyo. — Reuters pic

SINGAPORE, March 26 ― Asian stock markets made a cautious start today following two days of rallies, as investors await the passage and details of a US$2 trillion (RM8.87 trillion) stimulus package in the United States to combat the economic fallout from the coronavirus.

Senate leaders hope to vote on the plan later today in Washington, but it still faces criticism. The bill includes a US500 billion fund to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount for payments up to US$3,000 to millions of US families.

It cannot come soon enough, with potentially enormous weekly US initial jobless claims to appear in data due at 1230 GMT.

Australia's S&P/ASX 200 index rose 1.5 per cent in early trade ― its third positive start in as many sessions, but also its most muted. Japan's Nikkei fell 2.2 per cent.

Hong Kong futures were 1 per cent higher and China A50 futures were up 0.2 per cent. MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan rose 0.3 per cent.

“There has been so much stimulus thrown at this,” said Jun Bei Liu, portfolio manager at Tribeca Investment Partners in Sydney.

“But the positivity related to it is really just sentiment,” she said, adding that investors were largely flying blind with so many companies withdrawing earnings guidance. Jobless figures may offer a “reality check,” she said.

In perhaps an early sign of the fragile mood, the risk-sensitive Australian dollar dropped 1 per cent and the safe-haven Japanese yen rose in morning trade.

US stock futures rose 1 per cent, following the first back-to-back session rises on Wall Street in over a month.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 2.4 per cent and the S&P 500 1.2 per cent, while the Nasdaq Composite dropped half a per cent following a Nikkei report that Apple was weighing a delay in the launch of its 5G iPhone.

Jobless claims to test bounce

The money at stake in the stimulus bill amounts to nearly half of the US$4.7 trillion the US government spends annually.

But it also comes against a backdrop of bad news as the coronavirus spreads and as jobless claims are set to soar, with both expected to test the nascent bounce in markets this week.

California Governor Gavin Newsom told reporters yesterday that a million Californians had already applied for jobless benefits this month ― a number that knocked stocks from session highs and has analysts bracing for worse to come.

RBC Capital Markets economists had expected a national figure over 1 million in today's data, but say “it is now poised to be many multiples of that,” as reduced hours across the country drive deep layoffs.

“Something in the 5-10 million range for initial jobless claims is quite likely,” they wrote in a note.

That compares to a 695,000 peak in 1982. Forecasts in a Reuters poll range from a minimum of 250,000 initial claims, all the way up to 4 million.

Trepidation seemed to put a halt on the US dollar's recent softness in currency markets, with the dollar ahead 1 per cent against the Antipodean currencies and up 0.6 per cent against the pound.

It slipped 0.3 per cent to ¥110.85.

US crude slipped 1.5 per cent to US$24.11 per barrel and gold steadied at US$1,608.14 per ounce. ― Reuters

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