Asian stocks mixed with traders sensitive to Omicron headlines

Hong Kong (AFP) – Asian markets were mixed Thursday and oil edged up with traders still trying to claw back their latest Omicron-induced losses but still full of uncertainty after Wall Street suffered a late plunge in response to the United States reporting its first case.


News that a patient had come down with the new variant sent shivers through US investors who fear authorities will be forced to reintroduce strict containment measures or even lockdowns, derailing the recovery in the world's top economy.

That comes on top of a widespread belief the Federal Reserve will end its vast bond-buying financial support programme quicker than expected and begin hiking interest rates next year to prevent inflation -- now at a three-decade high -- from running out of control.

Traders were already feeling uneasy in recent weeks on concerns about the sharp rise in prices around the world caused by supply chain snarls, a spike in energy costs and a labour shortage.

The announcement of Omicron -- and warnings that vaccines may not be as effective against it -- sent them over the edge on Friday.

While experts say it will take weeks to fully understand the true danger of Omicron, markets are highly sensitive to any negative headlines on the crisis, with the VIX gauge of volatility at its highest level since the start of February.

Meanwhile, the OECD grouping of major industrialised nations warned the mutated strain threatens the global recovery and cut its growth outlook for this year.

The disquiet on trading floors was evident in New York Wednesday when the announcement of the strain sent all three main indexes into the red, having spent most of the day in positive territory.

"The Omicron variant is the number one uncertainty facing the US economic outlook," Kim Mundy, of Commonwealth Bank of Australia, said.

Tokyo, Shanghai, Sydney, Singapore, Wellington and Jakarta all fell but Hong Kong, Seoul, Taipei and Manila rose.

Eyes will be on the latest meeting of OPEC and other major suppliers later in the day where they will discuss their plan to raise output each month to help quell prices, with the likely impact of Omicron on demand likely to be a major talking point.

The grouping has already raised the possibility it will pause the increases, having been upset by a decision by the United States and other major consumers including China to release some of their own reserves.

Both main crude contracts rose Thursday, though they remain well below their levels from a week ago before they tanked more than 10 percent in reaction to the Omicron announcement.

"The arrival of the Omicron variant and the ensuing sell-off obviously increases the odds that OPEC+ will opt to hit the pause button," Helima Croft of RBC Capital Markets said.

Investors are also awaiting the release of US jobs data on Friday, which will provide the latest snapshot of the state of the world's top economy.

Key figures around 0230 GMT

Tokyo - Nikkei 225: DOWN 0.7 percent at 27,750.67 (break)

Hong Kong - Hang Seng Index: UP 0.3 percent at 23,719.36

Shanghai - Composite: DOWN 0.1 percent at 3,572.56

West Texas Intermediate: UP 0.4 percent at $65.85

Brent North Sea crude: UP 0.4 percent at $69.14

Euro/dollar: UP at $1.1339 from $1.1317 at 2125 GMT

Dollar/yen: UP at 113.01 yen from 112.78 yen

Pound/dollar: UP at $1.3305 from $1.3271

Euro/pound: DOWN at 85.23 pence from 85.27 pence

New York - Dow: DOWN 1.3 percent at 34,022.04 (close)

London - FTSE 100: UP 1.6 percent at 7,168.68 (close)