Asia stocks shaky before China data, ponder yield curve

A photographer takes pictures of an electronics stocks indicator displaying share prices of the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
A photographer takes pictures of an electronics stocks indicator displaying share prices of the Tokyo Stock Exchange.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Asian stocks wobbled on Tuesday (Nov 14) as investors awaited developments in US tax reform efforts, while contemplating if a marked flattening in the US yield curve might ultimately be a harbinger of an economic slowdown there.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan dipped 0.25 per cent after two sessions of declines, while Australia fell 0.9 per cent.

Japan's Nikkei was choppy, down 0.1 per cent to add to four sessions of losses.

Investors were waiting for any signs of compromise on US tax policy after US Senate Republicans on Thursday unveiled a plan that would cut corporate taxes a year later than a rival House of Representatives' bill.

In Asia, the highlight will be Chinese data on industrial output, retail sales and urban investment, while the United States releases its own retail sales figures later in the day.

Also on the menu are no fewer than 13 central bank speakers, including the heads of the US, European, British and Japanese central banks.

On Wall Street, a sharp drop in General Electric shares was offset by gains in high dividend-paying sectors including consumer staples and utilities.

The Dow rose 0.07 per cent, while the S&P 500 added 0.10 per cent and the Nasdaq 0.1 per cent.

General Electric slashed its dividend by 50 per cent and cut its profit forecast while unveiling a plan that narrowed its focus on aviation, power and healthcare.

Currency markets were mostly quiet, with the US dollar barely changed against a basket of counterparts at 94.495. The euro was up 0.03 per cent at $1.1668.

Sterling hovered at US$1.3113, having fallen as far as US$1.3063 on Monday amid concerns British Prime Minister Theresa May was losing her grip on power.

May's blueprint for Britain's departure from the EU faces a crucial test starting on Tuesday, when lawmakers try to win concessions on legislation to sever ties.

The dollar was steady at 113.66 yen after bouncing from 113.25 support overnight.

A rise in US bond yields has generally made it more attractive to buy dollars with money borrowed in low-rate currencies like the yen and Swiss franc.

Figures out on Monday from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission showed the speculative net short position in the Japanese yen had blown out to the largest since January 2014 and in the Swiss franc to the biggest since December 2016.

Yields on Treasury two-year notes hit a fresh nine-year high on Monday, shrinking the spread to 10-year paper to near its smallest since 2007.

The trend in part reflects market wagers the US Federal Reserve's plans to hike rates in December and two or three times next year will prove all too successful in restraining inflation by ultimately slowing the economy.

Tom Porcelli, chief US economist at RBC Capital Markets, noted that a glance at history suggested a flatter, and particularly an inverted, yield curve was "compelling as an early warning sign" of recession.

However, history also showed that the average amount of time it took the curve to go from flat to inverted was 18 months and the average time to go from inverted to recession was 18 months.

"So even if we take the inverted curve as gospel, it suggests the expansion still has multiple years in it," said Porcelli.

In commodity markets, gold was steady at US$1,277.55 an ounce. The metal has stayed broadly within US$15 an ounce of its 100-day moving average, currently at US$1,277 an ounce, for most of the last month.

Oil prices held in a tight range as support from Middle East tensions and record long bets by fund managers balanced rising US production.

US crude was off 4 cents at US$56.76, while Brent crude futures were yet to trade at US$63.16 a barrel.