Asian stocks and pound sag as markets await British PM Theresa May's big Brexit speech

A counting machine tallies British pound notes at a currency exchange in Kuala Lumpur, on Jan 16, 2017.
A counting machine tallies British pound notes at a currency exchange in Kuala Lumpur, on Jan 16, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Asian stocks and the pound sagged on Tuesday (Jan 17) ahead of a speech by British Prime Minister Theresa May that could have implications for broader risk sentiment.

Media have reported that May, due to speak later on Tuesday, will lay out plan to exit the European Union that would see Britain lose access to the bloc's single market.

Fears of such a "hard Brexit" have beaten sterling down to three-month lows against the US dollar and sapped broader investor appetite for stocks this week.

Growing uncertainty over the policies of Donald Trump have also hurt equities, which had rallied in many parts of the world thanks to speculation that the US President-elect would enact bold stimulus and reflationary measures once in office.

"Markets affected by the twin political black swans of 2016 - the Brexit vote and Trump win - remain volatile and uncertain," wrote David Croy, senior rates strategist at ANZ.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan lost 0.2 per cent. Trade was thin with Wall Street closed on Monday for Martin Luther King Day.

Japan's Nikkei fell 0.3 per cent and Australian stocks were down 0.8 per cent.

Sterling was down a fraction at US$1.2037. It had plunged to US$1.1983 the previous day, its lowest since Oct 7.

The pound's losses helped take some pressure away from the greenback, which has been burdened by investor uncertainty over the incoming Trump administration's policies.

The euro was little changed at US$1.0601 after dipping about 0.4 per cent overnight.

The yen benefited from its safe-haven status, holding its gains versus against the dollar, euro and sterling. The dollar was down 0.1 per cent at 114.085 yen having gone as low as 113.610 the previous day, its weakest since Dec. 8.

Gold was helped by the heightened risk aversion stemming from Brexit and uncertainty over Trump's plans. Spot gold was US$1,203.70 an ounce after climbing to US$1,207.86 overnight, its highest since late November.

Crude oil was higher as Saudi Arabia's steady commitment to reduce production offset a report forecasting US output would rise again this year.

US crude was up 0.3 per cent at US$52.52 a barrel.