Asia markets track Wall St higher as US-China trade talks begin

HONG KONG (AFP) – Asian markets rallied yesterday after a blockbuster performance on Wall Street as United States (US) jobs data beat forecasts and the head of the Federal Reserve hinted at a slower pace of interest rate hikes.

China’s move to make it easier for banks to lend also provided support to equities, while investors keep an eye on Beijing as negotiators begin talks to end a trade war between the world’s top two economies.

Dealers started the week on the front foot following a surge on Wall Street last Friday that came after figures showed more than 300,000 US jobs were created in December, tempering recent concerns about growth.

Later that day, Fed boss Jerome Powell said the bank had no “pre-set” plan for raising borrowing costs and was keeping a close watch on financial developments.

“We’re listening… sensitively to the message that markets are sending and we’ll be taking those downside risks into account as we make policy going forward,” he told a gathering of economists.

A man walks past a stock indicator board displaying share prices of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. – AFP

The news was music to the ears of traders, who have been fretting that the Fed would press on with its rate hike cycle, making it more expensive to borrow for investment.

The comments saw the Dow pile on more than three per cent while the Nasdaq was more than four per cent higher.

They also overshadowed the budget gridlock on Capitol Hill that has shut down the US government, with US President Donald Trump warning it could go on for years if he is not given funding to build a wall on the Mexican border.

And the gains filtered through to Asia, where Tokyo’s Nikkei ended 2.4 per cent higher, while Sydney gained 1.1 per cent and Seoul jumped 1.3 per cent.

Taipei surged more than two per cent and Manila was up 1.5 per cent with Jakarta 0.7 per cent up.

Hong Kong added 0.8 per cent and Shanghai finished 0.7 per cent higher, with buying also boosted by news that the People’s Bank of China had cut the amount of cash banks must keep in reserve.

The move aims to free up funds for lending in a bid to grease the economy’s wheels following a string of weak data that has raised questions about the outlook.

There was also some optimism as Chinese and US officials kicked off talks to find a solution to the trade war that has seen the two sides impose tariffs in hundreds of billions of dollars worth of goods.

The row was a key factor behind the big losses on global markets last year and any move to bring it to an end will be cheered on trading floors.

Trump last Friday raised hopes for an agreement, saying, “I think we will make a deal with China.”

Head of Asia-Pacific trade at OANDA Stephen Innes said, “Risk sentiment is trading agreeably on the back of Chair Powell’s dovish lean and the Chinese (rate) cut reviving the notion of returning global stimulus, which is being viewed risk positive and supportive of global equity markets.”

He added that the US jobs report eased worries about the economy and “to top the day off there’s rising hopes that progress could be made in trade talks” between Washington and Beijing.

In early European trade London, Paris and Frankfurt all rose 0.4 per cent.

The upbeat mood gave a lift to high-yielding currencies, with South Korea’s won and the Indonesian rupiah soaring against the dollar, while there were also healthy gains for Australia’s dollar.

Oil was also benefitting, with both contracts up more than one per cent thanks to the wave of positive headlines.

But while there was a sense of hope, analysts remain cagey about the coming months.

“I do think going forward you are probably not likely to see that type of move where equities sell off 20 per cent in the space of six weeks, but generally volatility will be higher than what you saw in 2017 and the first half of 2018,” Managing Director and Portfolio Manager at Kapstream Capital Raymond Lee told Bloomberg TV.