Asian stocks at 3-week lows on oil drop; Fed eyed

HONG KONG: Asian stocks hit three-week lows on Tuesday as a rout in oil prices knocked energy company shares lower and many investors moved to the sidelines ahead of next week's meeting where the Federal Reserve is expected to raise US interest rates.

With financial markets have already priced in a rate hike, it is the trajectory of US interest rates communicated by Fed Chair Janet Yellen that investors will watch amid uncertainty about growth in China and globally.

The MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan dropped 1.2 percent, erasing the gains made earlier this month, with Hong Kong shares leading declines with a fall of 1.8 percent.

"Beyond the December hike, investors are concerned about the lack of Chinese demand which is acting as a millstone around the neck of risky assets and most investors will stay away until they see a clearer direction on rates," said Cliff Tan, East Asian head of global markets at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in Hong Kong.

Federal funds futures contracts imply a 80-percent chance that the Fed will end seven years of near-zero interest rates at its December meeting and about even odds of a second rate rise by March.

An "uneasy calm" is prevailing in markets about the first increase in U.S. rates in almost a decade, the Bank for International Settlements said in a report this week.

Japan's Nikkei briefly bucked the trend, rising 0.3 percent before turning lower on the day, after revised data showed Japan had dodged a recession in the third quarter, with GDP up an annualised 1.0 percent, compared to a preliminary reading of a 0.8 percent fall.

Underlining the cautious outlook for China, a Reuters poll of Japanese firms showed deep pessimism about near-term Chinese growth prospects, with 79 percent saying they do not expect to expand business there next year.

Data on Tuesday showed China's imports fell for the 13th consecutive month with a 8.7 percent decline in November compared to a year earlier.

Global oil benchmark Brent crude futures dropped 5.4 percent to $40.66 per barrel on Monday, after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries' (OPEC) policy meeting on Friday ended without an agreement to lower production.

Keeping production at near-record levels in an oversupplied market has spooked investors grappling with reduced demand from China, the world's biggest energy consumer.

Brent fell below its August trough to hit its lowest level since February 2009, when the world's economy was mired in the deepest downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

US crude futures fell to as low as $37.50 per barrel, also hitting a near-seven-year low, hitting energy shares in Wall Street and pulling Asian commodity stocks lower.

On the currencies front, action around the China trade data was brief with the Australian dollar settling to new intraday lows, at $0.7112 and receding further from a 3-1/2 month high of $0.7386 touched on Friday.

The euro was on the back foot as the short-covering rally following last week's less-than-aggressive stimulus from European Central Bank ran its course.

The common currency stood at $1.08550, having slipped from its one-month high of $1.0981 set on Thursday. The yen was little changed so far at 123.11 per dollar.

The offshore Chinese yuan traded at a three-month low of 6.48 per dollar despite another lower-than-expected fixing by China's central bank.

Long-dated US Treasury debt prices held firm after rallying on Monday as the drop in oil prices pointed to benign inflation, potentially tempering the Fed's policy tightening path after the expected lift-off on Dec. 16.

"It will be hard for the Fed to achieve their goal of two percent inflation. People have said the fall in oil prices should boost consumption but that hasn't just happened," said Daisuke Uno, chief strategist at Sumitomo Mitsui Bank.

The 10-year US debt yield fell to 2.216 percent, off one-month high of 2.358 percent touched on Friday following strong US employment data.