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Asia in cautious mood on Omicron, US CPI

Asian share markets have got off to a cautious start as Omicron emerges in more countries and investors face a week-long wait for key US inflation figures that could settle the course of interest rates.

A mixed US jobs report did little to shake market expectations of a more aggressive tightening by the Federal Reserve, and the consumer price report due on Friday was likely to make the case for an early tapering.

Omicron remained a concern as the variant spread to about a third of US states, though there were reports from South Africa that cases there had mild symptoms.

Early trade was sluggish as MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan inched down 0.2 per cent.

Japan’s Nikkei eased 0.7 per cent, even as the government considered raising its economic growth forecast to account for a record $US490 billion stimulus package.

Wall Street was looking to rally after Friday’s late slide, with S&P 500 futures adding 0.4 per cent and Nasdaq futures 0.1 per cent.

While headline US payrolls had underwhelmed in November, the survey of households was far stronger with a 1.1 million jump in jobs taking unemployment down to 4.2 per cent.

“We think the Fed will view the economy as much closer to full employment than previously thought,” said Barclays economist Michael Gapen.

“We expect an accelerated taper at the December meeting, followed by the first rate hike in March. We continue to expect three 25 basis-point hikes in 2022.”

The futures market is almost fully priced for a hike to 0.25 per cent by May and 0.5 per cent by November.

The hawkish outlook is one reason BofA chief investment strategist Michael Hartnett is bearish on equities for 2022, expecting a “rates shock” and a tightening of conditions.

He favours real estate, commodities, volatility, cash and emerging markets, while bonds, credit and equities could struggle.

For now, short-term Treasury yields are being pushed higher but the longer-end has rallied as investors wager an earlier start to hikes will mean slower economic growth and inflation over time, and a lower peak for the funds rate.

Ten-year US yields dived almost 13 basis points last week and were last at 1.38 per cent, shrinking the spread over two-years to the smallest this year.

The rise in short-term rates has helped underpin the US dollar, particularly against growth-leveraged currencies which are seen as vulnerable to the spread of Omicron.

The US dollar hit 13-month peaks on the Australian and New Zealand dollars but its index was relatively steady on the majors at 96.214.

The euro was holding at $US1.1303 and above its recent trough at $US1.1184, while the dollar lost ground on the yen to 112.94.

Bitcoin shed a fifth of its value on Saturday as profit-taking and macro-economic concerns triggered nearly a billion dollars worth of selling across cryptocurrencies.

Bitcoin was last at $US49,436, having been as low as $US41,967 over the weekend.

In commodities, gold found some support from the decline in longer-term bond yields but has been trading sideways for several months in a $US1,720-1,870 range. Early Monday, it was steady at $US1,783 an ounce.

Oil prices have been far more volatile as supply constraints war with worries about demand as Omicron spreads. Lately prices have come off the boil with Brent and US crude falling for six straight weeks.

On Monday the market was attempting a bounce with Brent rising $US1.29 to $US71.17 a barrel, while US crude added $US1.30 to $US67.56 per barrel.

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