Investors take cover amid Russian crisis, oil slide

Reuters Sydney | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on December 17, 2014

An uneasy calm settled on Asian markets on Wednesday as a brewing financial crisis in Russia and the rout in oil prices sent investors scurrying for the cover of top-rated bonds.

Yields on British, German and Japan sovereign debt had all hit record lows, while long-dated US yields reached their lowest since late 2012.

Asian share markets were mixed with Japan’s Nikkei recouping 0.5 per cent of its recent hefty losses. MSCI’s index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan edged up 0.2 per cent from a nine-month trough.

Fed policy meet

The stakes were all the greater as the US Federal Reserve’s last policy meeting of the year could well see it drop a commitment to keeping rates low for a “considerable period’’.

That would be taken as a step toward raising interest rates, even as growth in the rest of the world sputters and falling commodity prices add to the danger of disinflation.

Financial contagion

A new wrinkle was the risk of financial contagion spreading from Russia where an emergency hike in interest rates failed to stop the rouble’s descent to new lows.

It was quoted around 68.00 to the dollar having been as far as 80.00 at one stage on Tuesday as speculation mounted that Moscow will impose capital controls within the next few days.

The rush from risk tended to benefit the safe haven yen, with the dollar back at 116.79 having been atop 118.00 on Tuesday. The urge to close positions caused collateral damage to the dollar generally as investors had been very long of the currency in anticipation of further gains.

The euro was up at $1.2510 while the dollar index eased 0.2 per cent to 87.935.

Dearth of liquidity

A year-end dearth of liquidity was leading to wild moves in even the most staid of assets. The oil-exposed Norwegian crown for instance, hit an all time low by one measure after carving out the widest daily trading range since the global financial crisis.

“The combination of the rouble crisis and poor liquidity broadly resulted in a period of total dysfunction across global FX and rate markets on Tuesday,’’ Citi analysts reported.

On Wall Street, the Dow had shed early gains to end Tuesday down 0.65 per cent, while the S&P 500 lost 0.85 per cent and the Nasdaq 1.24 per cent.

The good and the bad

Brent oil leaked another 18 cents to $59.83 a barrel, while US crude was down 53 cents at $55.40.

On the face of it, the downward spiral in oil should be good news as it effectively acts as a tax cut for consumers worldwide. JPMorgan estimates the boost to spending could add 0.4 percentage points to global growth over 2015.

But a halving of fuel costs is also a force for disinflation in a world where the supply of goods already exceeds demand.

UK inflation

Data out of the UK showed inflation had ebbed to its slowest in 12 years in November, arguing strongly against the need for early rate rises from the Bank of England.

The Fed still seems keen to start raising US rates by mid-2015. However, with inflation still well below its 2 per cent target and likely to dip further as fuel prices fall, investors are wagering that any hike will only add to the disinflationary impulse in the economy.

A key market measure of inflation expectations for the next five years has been falling fast since August and hit new lows at 2.37 per cent on Tuesday.

Likewise, yields on 30-year Treasury bonds touched their lowest since late 2012 at 2.67 per cent as investors priced out the risk of higher inflation.

Published on December 17, 2014
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