Asian markets mixed but traders on edge, pound holds ground


Hong Kong - Asian investors moved nervously on Thursday as they struggled in the face of multiple headwinds, while oil prices resumed their drop and the pound struggled to hold its gains.

Fears about the China-US trade war, rising Federal Reserve interest rates, tensions within the European Union and slowing growth in most economies have helped drive stocks south for the past few months.

And this week it has been the turn of the crude market to drive the sell-off, dragging energy firms as it dropped like a stone on slowing demand and high output, while US sanctions on major producer Iran were not as severe as expected.

While OPEC and its kingpin Saudi Arabia have said they will tighten the taps to put an end to the recent sell-off - both main contracts have fallen around a fifth from their early October highs - the US has pushed up production.

Calls from Donald Trump for lower prices, a stronger US dollar against emerging market units and soft Chinese growth have also been factors in depressing the market.

And despite a brief rise in oil prices on Wednesday, observers do not expect a rebound any time soon.

"The toxic elixir of weakening global demand and oversupply suggests upticks (in oil prices) will run into substantial selling as numerous bearish factors are weighing on sentiment," said Stephen Innes, head of Asia-Pacific trade at OANDA.

Energy firms were mixed on Thursday as traders took a breather from the heavy selling of the past few days, with Hong Kong-listed CNOOC up 1.5% but Inpex down 0.3% in Tokyo.

On broader markets, Hong Kong edged up 0.5%, Shanghai was 0.8% higher, while Seoul and Taipei each added 0.2%.

However, Tokyo ended the morning down 0.3%, Sydney eased 0.4% and Singapore was off 0.1%.

 Deal or no deal?

There was little reaction to a Bloomberg report that China had submitted a series of trade concessions - which were said not to meet US demands - to the Trump administration.

The move comes ahead of a G20 summit this month, where Trump will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"I suspect equity traders will be more focused on the 'a long road that lies ahead' as we can only assume it will be filled with numerous potholes," Innes said. "As such we could expect risk sentiment to continue shading to the dark side of the equation."

The unease in Asia comes after another negative performance on Wall Street where indices hit their lowest levels since late October, with traders also depressed by a warning from a top Democrat indicating the party would put the brakes on deregulation.

On currency markets, the pound was holding up after news of Prime Minister Theresa May's success in pushing her Brexit plan through cabinet but analysts warned she faced a tough time getting it through parliament next month.

With many of her ministers and plenty of backbenchers - as well as the opposition - against her breakthrough deal with Brussels, there are doubts she has the muscle to get her way, leaving an uncertain future for the British economy and the pound.

"We still can't say with any confidence whether this deal, no deal, or indeed a second referendum, is now the most probable outcome to this ongoing saga," said Ray Attrill, head of forex strategy at National Australia Bank.

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