Asian markets mixed as traders stuggle to build on rally

Hong Kong (AFP) –

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Markets were mixed in Asia on Thursday as investors applied the brakes to a recent rally that has some worried valuations may have run a little too high.

The underwhelming performance followed a tepid lead from Wall Street, where only the Dow managed to eke out a gain despite blowout profits at top banks that gave a healthy start to the much-anticipated earnings season.

Observers also said the Chinese central bank's continued push to suck up liquidity from the financial system to keep a lid on debt issuance also showed Beijing was happy enough with its recovery that it was pulling back on last year's stimulus measures.

After hitting a series of records or multi-year highs in recent months, world markets are struggling to push any higher without any new major catalysts, with the latest round of corporate reporting now the main focus.

Traders are also keeping an eye on developments in the pandemic crisis as infections in some countries rise and after vaccine programmes were dealt a blow by blood clot concerns over the Johnson & Johnson jab as well as that from AstraZeneca.

Shanghai and Hong Kong led losses in Asia, while Sydney, Manila and Wellington were also in the red.

Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei and Jakarta rose.

But Patrik Schowitz at JP Morgan Asset Management warned he was less upbeat about regional equities, which he said were dominated by growth and tech firms.

Those sectors have come under pressure of late owing to expectations that interest rates will rise as the world economy rebounds.

- Tug-of-war -

"In addition to that, the biggest economy in the region is expected to see more policy normalisation: China has now recovered enough that policymakers can afford to be more conservative and worry more about containing debt and property market risks," he said.

"That will be a headwind to China equities, despite the solid economy."

He added that fears over inflation continued to be a big risk for markets, as investors bet that the explosion of economic activity fanned by vaccines, reopenings and stimulus measures -- particularly in the United States -- would force central banks to wind in their ultra-supportive monetary policies.

And Adam Phillips, of EP Wealth Advisors, said: "You're going to see this tug-of-war continue within markets as investors weigh the prospects of a strengthening economy with the risk of rising inflationary pressures."

Federal Reserve boss Jerome Powell again repeated the bank's pledge to stay fast on its policies until it is happy inflation is running high for some time and unemployment is tamed.

Observers pointed out that he did suggest the Fed would wind down other easing policies, including its bond-buying programme, before lifting interest rates.

Oil prices dipped slightly but held onto most of the strong gains enjoyed Wednesday that came on the back of a forecast-beating drawdown in US stockpiles and an upbeat outlook from the International Energy Agency.

- Key figures around 0230 GMT -

Tokyo - Nikkei 225: UP 0.1 percent at 29,657.66 (break)

Hong Kong - Hang Seng Index: DOWN 0.7 percent at 28,692.17

Shanghai - Composite: DOWN 0.8 percent at 3,388.50

Dollar/yen: DOWN at 108.86 yen from 108.94 yen at 2100 GMT

Pound/dollar: DOWN at $1.3772 from $1.3778

Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.1975 from $1.1980 at 2100 GMT

Euro/pound: UP at 86.95 pence from 86.92 pence

West Texas Intermediate: DOWN 0.4 percent at $62.91 per barrel

Brent North Sea crude: DOWN 0.3 percent at $66.40 per barrel

New York - Dow: UP 0.2 percent at 33,730.89 (close)

London - FTSE 100: UP 0.7 percent at 6,939.58 (close)