Asian stocks kept in check by HK unrest, US jobs next test


By Ian Chua

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Asian stocks were poised for their fourth-straight weekly fall on Friday, with the regional index drifting in an aimless morning session as the civil unrest in Hong Kong and caution ahead of a closely-watched U.S. jobs report kept investors on edge.

Already disappointed by the European Central Bank, which gave no new hints of an imminent sovereign bond buying program, markets were further underwhelmed by a survey showing growth in China’s services sector eased last month.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan eased 0.06 percent, on track for a fourth straight week of declines. It has fallen more than 8 percent in the last four weeks, marking its worst performance in over a year.

Tokyo’s Nikkei slipped 0.19 percent, Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 index was a touch firmer, while Hong Kong stocks fell 1.36 percent. Markets in South Korea, India and China are closed for public holidays.

“While U.S. equities managed to recover most of lost grounds and closed flat, a sense of risk-off tone still prevails as markets continue to be buffeted by a combination of factors,” said Gary Yau, an analyst at Credit Agricole.

Growth worries in the euro zone and China, geo-political risks as well as concerns about the effects of the Federal Reserve normalising monetary policy have all conspired to unsettle global equity markets in recent weeks.

They have also driven the U.S. dollar to a four-year high against a basket of major currencies as markets bet the Federal Reserve will hike interest rates well before the ECB and Bank of Japan.

The dollar index was last at 85.757, not far from the peak of 86.218 set earlier in the week. Against the yen, the dollar reached a six-year high of 110.09, while the euro traded at $1.2656, near a two-year trough of $1.2571 plumbed on Tuesday.

Whether dollar bulls prevail in the short term depends very much on the influential U.S. nonfarm payrolls report due later on Friday.

Analysts polled by Reuters expect U.S. employers to have hired 215,000 workers in September, up from a disappointing 142,000 in August.

Investors were also keeping a wary eye on developments in Hong Kong, whose leader Leung Chun-ying defied pro-democracy protesters’ demands to step down by Friday.

Leung repeated police warnings that the consequences would be serious if protesters sought to surround or occupy government buildings.

However, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam would hold a meeting with students soon to discuss political reforms, although no time frame has been announced.

The combination of growth worries, geopolitical risks and a stronger U.S. dollar have weighed on commodity prices.

Copper traded at $6,651 a tone, languishing near a five-month low of $6,600 plumbed overnight. Oil prices wallowed at two-year lows, with brent crude at $93.55 a barrel.

(Editing by Shri Navaratnam)



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