Hawkish Asia rate views hit bonds; stocks off

Hawkish Asia rate views hit bonds; stocks off

Hong Kong: Government bonds in Australia and South Korea fell on Thursday as investors pushed forward expectations for interest rate rises in 2010 because of bullish growth views, while Asian stocks slid on year-end profit taking.

Major European stocks were seen broadly higher as investors take a breather after the recent selling streak. Britain’s FTSE 100 was seen down 4 points to up 1 point at open, Germany’s DAX up 4 to 6 points, and France’s CAC-40 up 7 to 8 points.

A deluge of Chinese economic data on Friday is expected to underscore that Asia’s growth rate will continue to lead the global economy and support a premium on regional asset prices.

However, sovereign credit rating risks in other parts of the world bubbled below the surface. Standard & Poor’s cut its outlook on Spain to negative, after Fitch cut Greece’s debt rating and Moody’s reminded this week that the United States could lose its top rating in 3-4 years if its fiscal situation deteriorates.

The 3-year December Australian government bond future fell 0.1 point to 95.12 after hitting a 4-month high last week Tuesday.

The prospect of a greater interest rate advantage attracted dealers looking for yield to the Australian dollar, which rose as high as US$0.9175 before settling back to $0.9125, up 0.5% on the day.

The New Zealand dollar also was up 0.5% to $0.7227 on hawkish comments from its central bank, which signalled it may start raising rates in April, pulling back from an earlier pledge to stand pat until late 2010.

Australia’s economy has generated nearly 100,000 jobs in the last three months, a standout among advanced economies that makes a fourth consecutive central bank base rate increase in February increasingly likely.

“All the jobs were full-time, the participation rate is holding strong and it increasingly looks like the unemployment rate has peaked," said Brian Redican, senior economist with Macquarie. “A hike in February looks more and more likely."

Shorter-maturity bonds were also hit in South Korea, where the head of the Bank of Korea said rates were too low given economic growth prospects and the central bank could not wait for employment to pick up before lifting borrowing costs.

Eight of 11 analysts polled on Thursday expect Korean policy rates to rise in the first quarter of 2010, compared with earlier this week when another poll showed the majority expecting a rate increase in the second quarter or later.

In Japan, investors snapped up medium-term government bonds ahead of new money market operations to increase liquidity in the banking system. The 5-year Japanese government bond fell to the lowest since July 2005 at 0.45% before edging back up to 0.465%.

The Nikkei share average in Tokyo tumbled 1.4%, with investors finding sovereign credit risk was a good reason to take profits. The Nikkei, though, remains up 3.6% on the month compared with the S&P 500, which is flat in December.

A 6.5% fall in the shares of Suzuki Motor, was the fourth-largest drag on the Nikkei as dealers questioned the stock’s high valuation despite optimism surrounding an alliance with Volkswagen.

Indeed, Suzuki is trading at about 1.5 times its 12-month forward book value, above the industry average of 1 times, Thomson Reuters Starmine shows.

“We believe the firm will benefit from the technology alliance with Volkswagen, but anticipation of tie-up news has already driven its valuation... considerably higher (than those of its Japanese rivals)," said Morgan Stanley analyst Noriaki Hirakawa.

The MSCI index of Asia Pacific stocks outside Japan eased 0.3%, with the consumer discretionary and technology sectors the biggest drags on the index.

The Thomson Reuters index of Asia ex-Japan equities was down 0.5%.

US crude for January delivery shed small gains during the session as equities declined, to trade down 0.2% at $70.56 a barrel. Oil has fallen now for six straight sessions.