Asian shares creep up to near 2-year peak, pound stays under pressure as US dollar firms

A pedestrian walks past an electronic stock indicator flashing the morning closing rate of the Tokyo stock market in Tokyo on March 28, 2017.
A pedestrian walks past an electronic stock indicator flashing the morning closing rate of the Tokyo stock market in Tokyo on March 28, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Asian shares edged up to near their highest in two years on Thursday (March 30), while the US dollar benefited from waning expectations that the European Central Bank was poised to end its easy policy.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was 0.2 per cent higher in early trade, pushing against its loftiest levels since June 2015.

Japan's Nikkei stock index was down 0.2 per cent, while Australian shares firmed, helped by gains in oil prices. Strong energy shares had helped the US S&P 500 end higher overnight.

The dollar index, which tracks the US currency against a basket of six major rivals, was steady on the day at 100.03. It was lifted to a one-week high overnight as the euro slipped on concerns about the impact of Brexit as well as news that ECB policymakers are keen to reassure investors that their easy-money policy is far from ending.

The euro was down 0.1 per cent at US$1.0752, after Reuters reported ECB policymakers were wary of changing their policy message after tweaks this month upset investors and raised chances of a surge in borrowing costs. Prime Minister Theresa May formally began Britain's exit from the European Union on Wednesday, launching a two-year negotiation process before the divorce comes into effect in late March 2019.

The pound edged up slightly on the day to US$1.2439 after skidding to a one-week low of US$1.2377 overnight.

"Brexit, to some extent, has been covered in the market already. People went short, covered, and went short again," said Kaneo Ogino, director at foreign exchange research firm Global-info Co in Tokyo. "As for the dollar, demand is still steady from pure commercial orders, but the Japanese fiscal year ends this week and Tokyo investors don't want to take new positions."

Against the yen, the dollar added 0.2 per cent to 111.25 , well above this week's low of 110.110, its lowest since Nov 18, in the wake of last week's failure to pass a US healthcare reform bill. That had raised fears that President Donald Trump might face challenges in getting his promised stimulus and tax reform policies passed as well, which pressured the greenback.

But underpinning the dollar, Chicago Federal Reserve president Charles Evans, a voter on the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee, said on Wednesday he supports further interest rate hikes this year given progress on the Fed's goals of full employment and stable inflation.

Comments from Boston Fed president Eric Rosengren and San Francisco Fed president John Williams also backed multiple rate hikes, though those officials are non-FOMC voters.

US crude futures were up 0.1 per cent at US$49.56 a barrel in early Asian trading, while Brent crude futures were steady at US$52.42 after adding 2.1 per cent on Wednesday.

Oil prices surged on Wednesday as US crude inventories grew less than expected, supply disruptions continued in Libya and the Opec-led output cut looked likely to be extended.