Asian markets cautiously await US stimulus, jobs

Tom Westbrook, Reuters

Posted at Mar 26 2020 08:58 AM

A 3D-printed coronavirus model is seen in front of a stock graph and the words COVID-19 on display in this illustration taken March 25, 2020. Dado Ruvic, Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Asian stock markets were poised for a cautious start on Thursday following two days of rallies, as investors await the passage and details of a $2 trillion stimulus package in the United States to address the economic fallout from the coronavirus.

Senators are set to vote on the plan later on Wednesday in Washington. The bill includes a $500 billion fund to help hard-hit industries and a comparable amount for direct payments of up to $3,000 each to millions of US families.

It cannot come soon enough, with potentially enormous weekly US initial jobless claims to appear in data due at 1230 GMT.

Markets in Australia and New Zealand began in the green, with the NZ50 up 3 percent and the S&P/ASX 200 up 2 percent.

Nikkei futures last traded 2 percent below the index's cash close. Hong Kong futures were 1 percent higher and China A50 futures were up 0.2 percent.

"There has been so much stimulus thrown at this," said Jun Bei Liu, portfolio manager at Tribeca Investment Partners in Sydney.

"But the positivity related to it is really just sentiment," she said, adding that investors were largely flying blind with so many companies withdrawing earnings guidance. Jobless figures may offer a "reality check," she said.

In perhaps an early sign of the fragile mood, the risk-sensitive Australian dollar dropped 1 percent and the safe-haven Japanese yen rose in morning trade.

US stock futures traded slightly negative, following the first back-to-back session rises on Wall Street in over a month.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 2.4 percent and the S&P 500 1.2 percent, while the Nasdaq Composite dropped half a percent following a Nikkei report that Apple was weighing a delay in the launch of its 5G iPhone.

JOBLESS CLAIMS TO TEST BOUNCE

The money at stake in the stimulus bill amounts to nearly half of the $4.7 trillion the US government spends annually.

But it also comes against a backdrop of bad news as the coronavirus spreads and as jobless claims are set to soar, with both set to test the nascent bounce in markets this week.

California Governor Gavin Newsom told reporters on Wednesday that a million Californians had already applied for jobless benefits this month - a number that knocked stocks from session highs and has analysts bracing for worse to come.

RBC Capital Markets economists had expected a national figure over 1 million in Thursday's data, but say "it is now poised to be many multiples of that," as reduced hours across the country drive deep layoffs.

"Something in the 5-10 million range for initial jobless claims is quite likely," they wrote in a note.

That compares to a 695,000 peak in 1982. Forecasts in a Reuters poll range from a minimum of 250,000 initial claims, all the way up to 4 million.

Trepidation seemed to put a halt on the US dollar's recent softness in currency markets, with the dollar ahead 1 percent against the Antipodean currencies and up 0.6 percent against the pound.

It slipped 0.3 percent to 110.85 yen.

US crude slipped 1.5 percent to $24.11 per barrel and gold steadied at $1,608.14 per ounce.