By Lisa Twaronite
TOKYO (Reuters) – Emerging Asian currencies skidded and regional shares tumbled to six-week lows on Wednesday as mixed signals from Federal Reserve officials raised fresh concerns about an imminent rollback of the U.S. central bank’s asset-buying stimulus.
The Indonesian rupiah hit its weakest in more than four-and-a-half years as foreign banks sold the currency despite the central bank’s surprise rate hike in the previous session, falling as much as 0.7 percent to 11,670 per dollar.
The rupee slumped to a two-month low on Wednesday after surging consumer prices sparked fears the central bank would continue to raise interest rates and undermine economic growth at a particularly vulnerable time for the currency.
The Reserve Bank of India is likely to have stepped in to prop up the rupee via state-run banks, to keep it from falling further after it opened at a nine-week low of 63.90 to the dollar, traders said.
“Pockets of firm U.S. data will reignite QE (quantitative easing) tapering concerns, pulling dollar higher and vulnerable Asian currencies lower,” said Radhika Rao, economist with DBS in Singapore.
“After a brief respite, the headwinds for the Indian rupee are back at the fore by way of rate tightening fears and elevated inflation,” she added.
MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan skidded about 1.3 percent to its lowest in more than a month, on track to mark a fifth straight losing session. Japan’s Nikkei stock average slipped 0.4 percent.
Chinese shares got off to a rocky start, after the initial communique from a key Communist Party policy meeting to set a blueprint for the coming decade’s reform agenda offered them few concrete details.
“Despite setting the timeline for making decisive results by 2020, the communique is still lacking details and quantifiable indicators,” analysts at HSBC Global Research wrote in a note to clients.
The China Enterprises Index of the top Chinese listings in Hong Kong was down 1.9 percent, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index fell 1.3 percent.
U.S. S&P E-mini futures dipped 0.4 percent in Asian trade on Wednesday after the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index posted modest losses in the previous session.
Investors will also be paying close attention to any comments that Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen makes at Thursday’s Senate confirmation hearing on her nomination to become the first woman to head the world’s most powerful central bank.
“Since Yellen has become a candidate to succeed Ben Bernanke, she has hardly spoken about her view on monetary policy. Because the market doesn’t seem to doubt she is a dove, there’s a chance she is not as dovish as expected,” said Ichiro Asai, economist at Daiwa Securities.
Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart told reporters on Tuesday that a reduction of the central bank’s quantitative easing program remains a possibility at the Federal Open Market Committee’s next policy meeting on December 17-18, although he did say policy should remain very easy.
Data on Friday showed an unexpected surge in U.S. jobs growth in October, suggesting the labour market could be strong enough for the Fed to begin to pare its $85 billion-a-month bond-buying programme sooner rather than later.
Global markets have been buffeted since May over speculation of an imminent end to cheap dollars, a major driver of assets in recent years.
Signals from central bank officials have been mixed, with Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Minneapolis Fed, speaking about the need for aggressive action to foster growth.
The U.S. dollar wobbled but stuck close to recent ranges. It was off about 0.2 percent at 99.45 yen after rising as high as 99.79 yen on Tuesday, its strongest level since September 13. The dollar faces resistance at 100 yen, above which it has not traded since September 11.
The euro was slightly up from U.S. levels, holding well above lows set last week, when it suffered a heavy selloff on Thursday after the European Central Bank stunned investors by unexpectedly cutting its main rate to a record-low 0.25 percent.
The common currency bought $1.3449, well above its two-month low of $1.3295 hit on Thursday, but still down nearly 3 percent from a two-year peak of $1.3833 set last month.
The dollar index inched down about 0.1 percent to 81.077, moving away from a two-month peak of 81.482 struck on Friday.
In commodities markets, gold was slightly higher but remained not far from the previous session’s four-week low.
U.S. crude for December delivery edged up to $93.17 a barrel after flirting with 4-1/2 month lows, while the benchmark three-month copper contract fell 0.6 percent to $7,081 a tonne on the heightened speculation that the Fed will taper its stimulus.
(Additional reporting by Hideyuki Sano in Tokyo & Swati Bhat in Mumbai; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)