Asian stock markets drift as investors await Fed meeting

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

HONG KONG (AP) — Most Asian stock markets drifted Monday as investors hunkered down ahead of a Federal Reserve meeting this week that may set the stage for the first U.S. interest rate hike since the global financial crisis.

KEEPING SCORE: Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 climbed 0.1 percent to 19,278.08 and South Korea's Kospi added 0.3 percent to 1,990.97. Hong Kong's Hang Seng was up 0.4 percent to 23,917.74. The Shanghai Composite Index in mainland China jumped 2 percent to 3,437.85 as comments by China's top economic official raised hopes of additional stimulus to bolster economic growth. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 slipped 0.2 percent to 5,803.00. Markets in Southeast Asia were mixed.

FED IN FOCUS: The Fed's two-day meeting begins Tuesday. A growing number of investors expect the U.S. central bank to raise its benchmark interest rate sooner rather than later and they will be watching to see whether officials signal through their language whether that's the case. Global stock markets have been lifted for several years by ultralow rates and other monetary stimulus but a Fed rate hike would mark the start of a return to more normal levels for borrowing costs.

THE QUOTE: The Fed meeting will "undoubtedly" be the week's highlight for investors, said Michael Every, head of Asia-Pacific financial market research at Rabobank, in a commentary. "We might well say goodbye to the key term 'patience', which has become a rolling rule of thumb for 'a few more months'. In other words, March could officially open the door to a potential June rate hike."

CHINA CHEER: While the rest of Asia was brooding, Chinese stocks surged on hopes of renewed stimulus a day after Premier Li Keqiang said officials still have plenty of space and means to shore up slowing growth in the world's No. 2 economy. Li said at the close of China's annual legislature Sunday that because authorities have held off on bringing in sweeping stimulus measures over the past few years, policymakers have "fairly ample room" and a "host of policy instruments" to boost economic growth if it slows more than expected.

WALL STREET: U.S. stocks dipped on Friday as investors reacted to slumping oil prices and a jump in the dollar. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 0.8 percent to close at 17,749.31 while the Standard & Poor's 500 lost 0.6 percent to 2,053.40. The Nasdaq composite lost 0.4 percent to 4,871.76.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude slid to its lowest level in six years, losing 49 cents to $44.35 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell $2.21 to close at $44.84 a barrel on Friday. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell 41 cents to $54.60 a barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The euro strengthened to $1.0515 from $1.0497 Friday. The dollar weakened to 121.29 yen from 121.40 yen.