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Asian stocks retreat as US political tumult adds to growth worry

By Reuters - Dec 26,2018 - Last updated at Dec 26,2018

Pedestrians walk past a stock indicator board showing the share price of the Tokyo Stock Exchange (centre) in Tokyo on Wednesday (AFP photo)

TOKYO — Asian stock markets retreated again on Wednesday, extending a rout that began last week as US political uncertainty exacerbated worries over slowing global economic growth.

Investors were unnerved by the US federal government partial shutdown and President Donald Trump's hostile stance towards the Federal Reserve chairman. 

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had also raised market concerns by convening a crisis group amid the pullback in stocks.

S&P 500 emini futures were last down 0.6 per cent, pointing towards a lower start for Wall Street when the US market reopens after Christmas Day, when many of the world's financial markets were shut.

Markets in Britain, Germany and France will remain closed on Wednesday.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan slipped 0.5 per cent, brushing a two-month low.

The Shanghai Composite Index lost 0.4 per cent while South Korea's KOSPI shed 1.6 per cent.

Japan's Nikkei, which slumped 5 per cent the previous day, had a volatile session. It swerved in and out of the red, falling more than 1 per cent to a 20-month-low at one stage, before ending the day with a gain of 0.9 per cent. 

"In addition to concerns towards the US economy, the markets are now having to grapple with growing turmoil in the White House which has raised political risk ahead of the year-end," said Masahiro Ichikawa, senior strategist at Sumitomo Mitsui Asset Management.

US stocks have dropped sharply in recent weeks on concerns over weaker economic growth. Trump has largely laid the blame for economic headwinds on the Fed, openly criticizing its chairman, Jerome Powell, whom he appointed.

That has further rattled investors as they grappled with fears of slowing global growth, corporate earnings and US -China trade tensions.

In an effort to reassure investors, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin spoke on Sunday with the heads of the six largest US banks, who confirmed they have enough liquidity to continue lending and that "the markets continue to function properly".

"In the end, we believe that the Fed is the only presence capable of ending the current confusion in the markets," Kenta Inoue, senior market economist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities, said in a note.

"The White House will probably keep making gestures intended to halt the rout in stocks, but the federal government is likely to remain shut into the new year. The US-China trade war also shows no signs of a resolution."

US bond yields have declined amid the rout, including a steep sell-off in oil, prompted investors to move into safe-haven government debt, adding to the growing pressure on the dollar.

The dollar traded at 110.35 yen after retreating to a four-month low of 110.00 overnight against its Japanese peer, which tends to attract demand as a perceived safe-haven during times of market volatility and economic stress.

The euro was 0.15 per cent higher at $1.1412.

The 10-year US Treasury note yield extended its fall to touch 2.722 per cent, its lowest since early April.

In commodities, US crude futures were up 0.4 per cent at $42.70 per barrel after tumbling 6.7 per cent on Monday.

US crude futures plunged to the lowest level since June 2017 on Monday, as bearish stocks added to fears of an economic slowdown.

Brent crude futures were down 0.18 per cent at $50.38 a barrel, having skidded 6.2 per cent in the previous session to their weakest since August 2017.

Safe-haven gold was well bid, with spot prices brushing a six-month peak of $1,272.83 per ounce.

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