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Asian stocks edge up as Omicron fears ebb

Most Asian share markets have edged higher and the safe-haven dollar was on the back foot, on signs the Omicron variant would not significantly derail global economic growth.

The greenback was headed for its worst week since September on Friday while other risk-friendly assets from bitcoin to the Australian dollar held onto their recent gains buoyed by ebbing concerns over the severity of the new COVID-19 variant.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan rose 0.2 per cent, and Japan’s Nikkei inched 0.1 per cent higher, after the S&P 500 had finished at a record closing high.

Some markets, however, fell on tighter measures to contain the spread of Omicron. Chinese blue chips slipped 0.32 per cent a day after rising infections in the northwestern city of Xi’an resulted in a lockdown of its 13 million residents.

“As it looks like neither tapering nor the Omicron variant will have too much of an effect on the economy, globally, money is flowing into equities,” said Steven Leung, executive director for institutional sales at UOB Kay Hian in Hong Kong.

The US Federal Reserve said last week it would accelerate tapering of its massive bond buying program and paved the way for three interest rate hikes in 2022, but this did not roil markets as it did in 2013 when the Fed tapered its post-financial crisis quantitative easing.

Meanwhile, economists believe the Omicron strain of COVID-19 is unlikely to prevent a second straight year of above-trend growth, even as they – and more importantly epidemiologists and public health experts – try to assess the variant’s impact on health services given its apparent reduced severity yet increased transmissibility.

US equity and Treasury markets will be closed on Friday for the holiday, but the S&P 500 and Nasdaq futures gained 0.66 per cent and 0.8 per cent, respectively, in Asian hours.

Pan-region Euro Stoxx 50 futures jumped 1.35 per cent.

In currency markets the dollar index, which measures the greenback against six major peers, was at 96.067, little changed on the day but was down 0.6 per cent since Friday’s close in its worst week since early September.

The dollar lost ground on most currencies barring the yen, another safe haven. The Japanese currency was at 114.38 per dollar on Friday and 82.75 against the Australian dollar, almost the same level as in late November when news about the Omicron variant first emerged.

The Aussie was at $US0.7236, just off its five-week peak of $US0.7252 hit overnight, and the pound which struck a month high of $US1.3437 on Thursday, was last at $US1.341, up 1.4 per cent on the week.

“Cautious optimism that Omicron is less severe than Delta is supporting risk assets,” said FX analysts at CBA in their daily note.

The yield on benchmark 10-year Treasury notes was 1.4926 at their Thursday close having touched more than a one-week high of 1.5010 per cent earlier in the session as investors sold government bonds as part of the risk-on mood.

In line with the same trend, bitcoin rose 4.5 per cent on Thursday, its best day in nearly two weeks and held onto those gains on Friday in Asia, trading just above $US51,000.

Trading patterns in the world’s largest cryptocurrency are gradually becoming more aligned with risk-on and risk-off moves in traditional markets as institutional investors’ influence grows.

Oil prices fell on Friday in thin, holiday trade snapping a three-day rally. Brent crude futures slid 0.47 per cent, to $US76.49 a barrel. US markets are closed.

The weak dollar helped spot gold to continue to edge up 0.6 per cent on the day, and 1.15 per cent on the week to $US1818 per ounce.

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