These January Gains Are Not Enough to Hook Asia's Stock Traders

(Bloomberg) -- January has been pretty good for Asian stock investors so far. But in the past couple of days, the momentum got lost.

That’s because there are just too many unresolved questions and a lack of solid catalysts. In the latest hiccup related to the U.S.-China trade conflict, investors had to weigh a fresh wrinkle as federal authorities in Seattle are probing Huawei Technologies Co. for allegedly stealing trade secrets from American partner companies, according to people familiar with the matter.

There’s no wonder the Asian equity benchmark is little changed for a second day as markets across the region moved less than 0.8 percent. Japan’s Topix rose 0.4 percent, while gauges of Shanghai and Hong Kong shares ended up down 0.4 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively.

“Trading is choppy these days, it goes up one day and falls the next,” said Ayako Sera, a strategist at Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank Ltd. in Tokyo. “We’re not seeing a solid trend. People aren’t all pessimistic but surrounded by too much political uncertainty to feel optimistic.”

These January Gains Are Not Enough to Hook Asia's Stock Traders

The pause comes as the MSCI Asia Pacific Index has rallied almost 4 percent in January, keeping up with a string of gains that have been typical at the start of the year. Since 2012, the gauge has climbed in its first month in every year but two. Of course, that didn’t anticipate the trajectory for the rest of the year -- just think of 2018, when the benchmark surged 5.9 percent in January to end down almost 16 percent by December.

For traders, now the question is: what will drive the next rally, after a round of mid-level U.S.-China trade talks that was seen as constructive and more dovish commentary from central bankers preaching patience before additional interest-rate increases?

Of course, there’s the earnings season. The big U.S. banks have so far held up: Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Bank of America Corp. were the latest ones to jump after reporting results, with investors looking past a bond-trading slump across the industry. Morgan Stanley comes next, with tech giant Netflix Inc. scheduled for Friday. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. managed to eke out a 1.4 percent advance even though it forecast lower-than-estimated quarterly revenue as demand for Apple Inc.’s iPhone plateaus.

But for Mark Tinker, the head of Framlington Equities Asia at AXA Investment Managers, a trade resolution is really what the market needs.

“Long-term investors will say: ‘we’ll just stand out of the way while this all clears up,”’ he said at a media briefing in Hong Kong. “We’re kind of two steps forward, one step back.”

Stock-Market Summary

  • Japan’s Topix index up 0.4%; Nikkei 225 down 0.2%
  • Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index down 0.5%; Hang Seng China Enterprises down 0.4%; Shanghai Composite down 0.4%
  • Taiwan’s Taiex index up 0.3%
  • South Korea’s Kospi index little changed; Kospi 200 up 0.2%
  • Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 up 0.3%; New Zealand’s S&P/NZX 50 up 0.6%
  • India’s S&P BSE Sensex Index down 0.2%; NSE Nifty 50 down 0.2%
  • Singapore’s Straits Times Index down 0.6%; Malaysia’s KLCI up 0.5%; Philippine Stock Exchange up 0.8%; Jakarta Composite up 0.2%; Thailand’s SET up 0.2%; Vietnam’s VN Index down 0.7%

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.