Asian markets mixed ahead of key U.S. inflation data

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TOKYO — Asian shares were mixed Thursday ahead of a closely watched report on U.S. inflation viewed as a good indicator of whether Wall Street’s recent rising optimism is warranted or overdone.

Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225
NIK,
+0.01%

wobbled in early trading and was up 0.1%. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200
XJO,
+1.18%

jumped 1% and South Korea’s Kospi
180721,
+0.42%

gained 0.4%. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng
HSI,
-0.13%

lost 0.3%, while the Shanghai Composite
SHCOMP,
-0.06%

shed 0.2%. Stocks rose in Indonesia
JAKIDX,
+1.06%
,
but dipped slightly in Singapore
STI,
-0.39%

and Taiwan
Y9999,
-0.20%
.

“All eyes are on the arrival of U.S. inflation data this week,” Clifford Bennett, chief economist at ACY Securities, said in a report.

Also read: China’s inflation accelerates as economic rebound anticipated

Japan’s Finance Ministry reported the country’s current account returned to the black in November for the first time in two months, reflecting a slimming of the trade deficit as the yen regained value against the U.S. dollar and other currencies.

On Wall Street, the S&P 500
SPX,
+1.28%

climbed 1.3% to 3,969.61 for its second straight gain. The Dow Jones Industrial Average
DJIA,
+0.80%

rose 0.8% to 33,973.01, while the Nasdaq composite
COMP,
+1.76%

gained 1.8% to 10,931.67.

Stocks began 2023 with gains driven by hopes that cooling inflation and a slowing economy may lead the Federal Reserve to ease off its steep interest rate hikes. Such increases can help stamp out high inflation, but they also slow the economy and raise the risk of a recession while hurting prices for stocks and other investments.

Economists expect CPI Thursday’s report to show inflation is continuing to cool from its summertime peak, down to 6.5% last month from 7.1% in November and from more than 9% in June. The hope on Wall Street is that such a trend toward normal could convince the Fed to soon halt its blistering set of rate increases, often triple the usual amount.

Some investors are even betting the Fed will cut interest rates in the second half of this year to help prop up an economy that’s beginning to show pockets of weakness because of past rate hikes. Rate cuts typically act like steroids for markets, boosting prices for stocks and other investments.

“One real thing I think underpinning the market is simply the fact that the market doesn’t believe the Fed when they say they’re going to keep hiking this year,” said Brad McMillan, chief investment officer for Commonwealth Financial Network.

Of course, that also means investors could be setting themselves up for disappointment. If Thursday’s data and other reports don’t show inflation is improving as much as expected, it could mean the Fed would have to get tougher on interest rates.

The Fed has already said repeatedly it plans to raise its key overnight interest rate further, past its current perch sitting in a range of 4.25% to 4.50%. That rate began last year at its record low of virtually zero.

The central bank has also insisted it plans to keep rates high for a while to ensure inflation is really beaten down. It does not envision any rate cuts happening this year, and it’s even said that any “unwarranted” rallies on Wall Street “driven by a misperception” would only make the mission of returning inflation to normal more complicated.

The yield on the two-year Treasury, which tends to track expectations for Fed action, dipped to 4.22% from 4.24% late Tuesday. The 10-year Treasury yield, which helps set rates for mortgages and other important loans, fell to 3.52% from 3.61%.

In energy trading, benchmark U.S. crude
CLG23,
+0.08%

gained 11 cents to $77.52 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It jumped $2.29 to 77.41 on Wednesday. Brent crude
BRNH23,
+0.08%
,
the international pricing standard, picked up 6 cents to $82.73 a barrel in London.

In currency trading, the U.S. dollar
USDJPY,
-0.73%

slipped to 131.68 Japanese yen from 132.44 yen.

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