Shares steady, euro dips on Spain worries

2012-07-20 08:45

Hong Kong - Asian shares eased on Friday but were poised for their biggest weekly gain since January, as strong US corporate earnings lifted the S&P 500 to a two-and-a-half month high while Spain's fiscal woes kept the euro under pressure.

Oil prices eased after hitting an eight-week high overnight as Middle East tension stoked supply concerns, while a rally in soft commodities has seen corn and soybean prices soar to record highs due to a worsening US farm-belt drought.

The euro fell against the dollar and hovered near a record low versus the Australian dollar on Friday, undermined by worries about Spain's fiscal woes and recent falls in shorter-term eurozone interest rates.

The MSCI Asia Pacific ex-Japan index was little changed by midday. It is up 2.4% so far this week.

"We've had a reasonably good week for equities and there's something of a shift in terms of what people are looking at," said Christian Keilland, head of trading at BTIG in Hong Kong.

"There's obviously some rotation into the tech sector and everyone's looking at the agriculture space to see how that may affect things."

There was evidence suggesting some investors were selling into strength with regional funds seeing net outflows of $63.3m compared with the prior week's inflows, according to Citigroup.

Cyclical markets such as Korea and Taiwan led the outflows, Citigroup said.

Japan's Nikkei fell more than a percent with pharma and electrical equipment makers the biggest drags as worries about US economic growth soured sentiment.

Shrinking factory activity in the US mid-Atlantic region and more evidence of sluggish job growth has kept investors in export-reliant Japan wary about the impact of soft US data on corporate earnings.

Financials were also under pressure with Mitsubishi UFJ down 3.2% after shares of Morgan Stanley, in which the Japanese bank owns a stake, tumbled as it reported a drop in revenues.

Banks remained under pressure in South Korea in the wake of a domestic rate-fixing probe that follows investigations into the suspected manipulation of the Libor international benchmark in other major economies.

A group of banks being investigated in an interest rate rigging scandal are looking to pursue a group settlement with regulators rather than face a Barclays-style backlash by going it alone, people familiar with the banks' thinking said.

Soft commodities

Grain prices pushed to record highs overnight as scattered rains in US Midwest did little to douse concerns over the worst US drought in half a century or relieve worries around higher food prices.

Corn for September delivery at the Chicago Board of Trade set a record high of $8.16-3/4 a bushel, while soybeans for August delivery also set a record high of $17.49. Wheat for September rose 4% at $9.35 and set a four-year high.

Spot gold hovered near $1 580 an ounce on Friday, retaining gains from the previous session as weak US economic data kept alive hopes for more monetary stimulus from the central bank, which would drive investors to bullion.

US crude was down 0.7% while Brent futures for September delivery were off 0.4%.

Oil prices have soared 20% over the past month.

In the Middle East, a mid-week attack that claimed the lives of top officials in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle and a Bulgarian bus bombing that killed Israeli tourists - an act Israel blamed on Iran - reinforced fears that oil shipments could be disrupted.