Asian markets mixed: Japan skids; China helped by rate cut

Markets were mixed in Asia on Monday, with Japan’s benchmark slipping 0.8% after the government reported the economy contracted 6.3% in annual terms in the last quarter. China’s shares got a boost after the central bank stepped in to help the economy with a rate cut, extra buying of securities and tax cuts.

The Nikkei 225 in Tokyo was at 23,507.63 by late morning, while Sydney’s S&P ASX/200 edged 1% lower to 7,120.00. South Korea’s Kospi was flat, at 2,242.50, while the Hang Seng in Hong Kong climbed 0.5% to 27,953.73.

The Shanghai Composite index jumped 1.3% to 2,955.07 after the central bank and finance minister announced a slew of measures to support the economy as the country battles an outbreak of a new virus that has killed 1,770 people and infected nearly 70,000.

Shares fell in Taiwan and were flat in Bangkok and Jakarta.

The contraction in the Japanese economy, the world’s third-largest, reflected the impact of typhoons, trade tensions and crimped consumer spending. The seasonally adjusted economic data was announced as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces pressure over spreading cases of the new viral illness COVID-19 and markets around the region see a mounting toll from its impact on travel and tourism as authorities strive to contain it.

“Consumer spending, which slumped following the tax hike in the fourth quarter of 2019, will now struggle to do anything except contract further in the first quarter as the impact of Covid-19 weighs on consumer sentiment, weighing in particular on the consumer services sector,” ING said in a report.

“Some further government spending may help to curb any further contraction in GDP beyond 1Q20. But that will not stop what started off as a technical downturn from evolving into a full-blown recession,” it said.

Thailand and Singapore also reported weak growth in the last quarter of 2019, in figures that like Japan’s do not yet reflect the consequences of the coronavirus outbreak.

But good news came in the form of fresh help from the People’s Bank of China, which cut its one-year medium-term lending rate to 3.15% from 3.25%. The central bank also injected some 200 billion yuan ($28.6 billion) and conducted 100 billion yuan ($14.3 billion) in reverse repos, in effect putting more cash into the market through short-term purchases of securities.

Such moves will likely be followed by still more, said Julian Evans-Pritchard, given that many of the companies worst affected by the virus outbreak are smaller ones that lack access to loans from major state-run banks.

“We think the PBOC will need to expand its re-lending quotas and relax constraints on shadow banking in order to direct more credit to struggling SMEs,” Evans-Pritchard said in a commentary.

Wall Street closed out a wobbly day of trading Friday with the major stock indexes notching their second straight weekly gain. Though trading was mostly subdued and cautious following China’s report Thursday of a surge in cases of a new virus that raised fresh concerns about global economic growth.

The S&P 500 index rose 0.2% to 3,380.16. The Nasdaq composite gained 0.2%, to 9,731.18. Both indexes were lower for most of the afternoon. The Dow dropped 0.1%, to 29,398.08. The Russell 2000 index slid 0.4%, to 1,687.58.

Technology companies led the gainers Friday. Chipmaker Nvidia was a standout, jumping 7% after it handily beat analysts’ profit forecasts for the fourth quarter.

The real estate and utilities sectors also held up well as government bond yields fell, making companies that pay higher dividends more attractive. Digital Realty Trust climbed 3.9% and American Water Works rose 1.7%.

Bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury was at 1.59% from 1.58% late Friday.

Benchmark U.S. crude oil fell 5 cents to $52.00 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It closed 1.2% higher on Friday, notching its first weekly gain in six weeks. Brent crude oil, the international standard, lost 15 cents to $57.17 a barrel.

The slide in oil prices has weighed on energy stocks. The sector is the biggest loser in the S&P 500, down 10.2% so far this year.

More than three quarters of S&P 500 companies have reported earnings and the results so far show solid growth. Companies are expected to report overall profit growth of just under 1% when all the reports are in, according to estimates from FactSet.

Several big companies are on deck to report results next week. Walmart will release its report on Tuesday and Deere will report on Friday.

On Wednesday, the government will issue its report on producer prices, which measures inflation pressures before they reach consumers and there will be updates on the health of the housing industry. The Federal Reserve will release minutes from its January meeting.

In other commodities trading, gold lost 70 cents to $1,585.70 per ounce, silver rose 10 cents to $17.83 per ounce and copper fell 1 cent to $2.61 per pound.

The dollar rose to 109.81 Japanese yen from 109.77 yen on Friday. The euro weakened to $1.0833 from $1.0839.

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