Asian stock markets regain footing after US rate hike jitters fade

Energy Associated Press

Asian stock markets mostly rose Thursday, finding a firmer footing after several days of volatile trading linked to anxiety over a probable rate hike in the U.S.

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KEEPING SCORE: Japan's Nikkei 225 stock index rose 1.2 percent to 18,945.97. South Korea's Kospi added 0.1 percent to 1,983.35 following an unexpected rate cut by the central bank. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 jumped 1 percent to 5,850.20 despite weak jobs data. Hong Kong's Hang Seng added 0.6 percent to 23,861.04 and the Shanghai Composite Index gained 1.4 percent to 3,337.47.

US JITTERS: Investors are watching for clues from a U.S. Federal Reserve meeting next week about the possible timing of an interest rate hike. The Fed was expected to raise interest rates this year but expectations of the timing have been brought forward after strong employment figures suggested the U.S economic recovery is speeding up. The Fed's key rate has been near zero in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Low rates have been a boon for stock markets so the prospect of that situation ending is prompting a move out of stocks.

THE QUOTE: Stability has returned to most Asian developed markets, although the S&P 500 is looking the most vulnerable among the major markets," said IG chief market strategist Chris Weston in a market commentary. "The underperformance of the S&P 500 is building by the day, especially against Eurostoxx 50, China CSI 300 and also the ASX 200," he said. "In the equity space, the trade continues to be favoring markets where the underlying central bank is undergoing radical balance sheet expansion, or cutting interest rates."

CURRENCIES: While the Fed is poised to raise rates, the European Central Bank is trying to lower them and the Bank of Japan is also carrying out a mammoth monetary easing effort. The divergent policies are hammering the euro and yen and sending the dollar higher. The euro was trading at $1.0516, its lowest level since April 2003, versus $1.0547 in the previous session. The dollar was little changed at 121.42 yen from 121.47 yen. Asian currencies such as South Korea's won and Malaysia's ringgit have also been weakening, which markets may eventually see as a positive since cheaper currencies will boost the region's exports.

ASIA DATA: South Korea's central bank unexpectedly cut its policy interest rate to record low of 1.75 percent and said growth and inflation is likely to fall short of its forecasts. Investors appeared to shrug off a report Thursday showing deterioration in Japanese business sentiment. Continued signs of weakness in the economy have raised hopes for additional stimulus from the central bank, which is already injecting trillions of yen (tens of billions of dollars) a month into the economy.

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WALL STREET: U.S. stock indexes closed slightly lower Wednesday, stabilizing a day after their biggest sell-off in two months. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 27.55 points, or 0.2 percent, to 17,635.39. The Standard & Poor's 500 index dropped 3.92 points, or 0.2 percent, to 2,040.24. The Nasdaq composite fell 9.85 points, or 0.2 percent, to 4,849.94. The Nasdaq is up 2.4 percent this year.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude oil was down 2 cents to $48.15 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It fell 12 cents on Wednesday to $48.17 a barrel. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, rose 34 cents to $58.22 a barrel in London.