Asian shares down, US dollar jumps on Yellen's rate hike signal

Pedestrians walk past the foreign currency indicator at the window of a security company in Tokyo.
Pedestrians walk past the foreign currency indicator at the window of a security company in Tokyo. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (Reuters) - Asian shares edged lower on Thursday (Jan 19)and the US dollar rebounded after Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen hinted that interest rates in the United States could rise quickly this year.

The dollar had been grinding lower in recent sessions, dropping to its weakest levels since early December after US President-elect Donald Trump expressed concerns about a stronger greenback.

Investors have also remained anxious ahead of Trump's inauguration on Friday, with many using it as an excuse to take some money off the table.

Yellen said in a speech to the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco on Wednesday that holding off too long to begin raising rates could "risk a nasty surprise down the road," and that it "makes sense" for the Fed to gradually lift rates.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan inched 0.1 per cent lower in early trade.

On Wall Street, stronger financial shares helped push up the S&P 500, though the Dow Jones Industrial Average edged down.

Japan's Nikkei stock index was up 1 per cent, lifted by the weaker yen's tailwind.

"The dollar clearly rose on Yellen's remarks," said Mitsuo Imaizumi, chief currency strategist at Daiwa Securities in Tokyo. "But with tomorrow's inauguration of Trump ahead, Japanese investors still might take a cautious stance today."

While market participants expect the incoming US administration to embark on stimulus policies that would lift growth and inflation and keep the Fed on course for rate hikes, many investors are also concerned about the potential fallout of Trump's protectionist stance.

The dollar index, which tracks the greenback against a basket of six major counterparts, rose 0.4 per cent to 101.31.

The dollar was firm against the yen at 114.66, moving well above from the previous session's low of 112.57 yen.

The euro was also steady on the day at US$1.0632 ahead of the European Central Bank's regular policy meeting later in the session, after the ECB surprised markets last month by saying it would trim its monthly bond purchases in April.

None of the economists polled by Reuters last week expected any change at Thursday's meeting. They were unanimous in saying that the ECB's next move, after April's planned cut, would be to further taper its quantitative easing.

Crude oil prices took back ground lost in the previous session when the dollar strengthened. A stronger dollar makes dollar-denominated commodities more expensive for holders of other currencies.

US crude added 0.7 per cent to US$51.46 per barrel, after shedding 2.67 per cent on Wednesday.