HONG KONG: Asian markets sank on Wednesday as an upbeat assessment of the US economy by Federal Reserve (the Fed) Chairman Jerome Powell fanned new fears of a sharp rise in interest rates.
In his closely watched debut before lawmakers, the new central bank chief said the outlook had improved since December, when US President Donald Trump pushed through massive across-the-board tax cuts.
While it was a positive sign for the world’s top economy, the appraisal spooked investors already on edge at the prospect of higher borrowing costs. They forecast four rate increases this year, rather than the previously expected three.
Stephen Innes, head of Asia-Pacific trading at foreign-exchange firm Oanda, said Powell’s tone suggested he would be moderate.
He added, however, that “his pointer at the topside potential for both inflation and growth suggests the risks are skewed for a bolder monetary policy response.”
The Fed boss’ comments sent all three main Wall Street indexes plunging more than 1 percent and the dollar surging against most other currencies.
The yield on the key 10-year US Treasury bond, a proxy for interest rates, also jumped.
World markets suffered a sharp drop at the start of February after strong jobs and wages data sparked concerns that inflation would surge, and in turn force the Fed to ramp up borrowing costs.
Hong Kong on Wednesday sank 1.4 percent in the afternoon and Shanghai closed down 1 percent. Traders were also weighed down by faltering Chinese factory activity, which slowed to a 19-month low in February.
While the reading was hit by the Lunar New Year break, it was a third successive monthly fall in the purchasing managers’ index.
Tokyo finished 1.4 percent lower, hit by a stronger yen, while Sydney dropped 0.7 percent.
Singapore eased 0.2 percent and Seoul was off 1.2 percent, with Mumbai also lower.
However, Jim McDonald, Northern Trust Corp.’s chief investment strategist, remained upbeat.
“If they do go four times, we think it’s going to be for the right reasons—which is that growth is good, inflation is not out of control,” he told Bloomberg TV. “That will not be a bad environment for risk-taking.”
With bets piling up on higher interest rates, the dollar rallied on Tuesday and extended the gains in Asia against the pound and euro, though the safe-haven yen edged back up.
The greenback also racked up strong gains against other regional currencies, with the Australian dollar down 0.5 percent and South Korea’s won more than 1 percent down. The Thai baht, Indonesian rupiah and New Zealand dollar were also down.
Mexico’s peso, the South African rand and Canadian dollar were also almost 1 percent off.
On oil markets, crude extended Tuesday’s slide of more than 1 percent. A stronger dollar makes the commodity more expensive for holders of other currencies.