Asian stocks shaky ahead of U.S. jobs data, China markets

HONG KONG, Feb 3 (Reuters) – Asian stocks got off to a tentative start on Friday, as investors await the outcome of a key U.S. monthly jobs report that will set the tone for the Federal Reserve’s policy outlook and as China’s markets reopen after a week-long break.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was flat after touching its highest level since mid-October in the previous session. Morning trade in markets such as Australia was broadly steady, while Japan’s Nikkei share average was up 0.6 percent.

“A strong reading in the payrolls data above 200,000 coupled with a rise in wage growth could put the March 15th (Federal Reserve) meeting in serious contention for a hike despite uncertainty around the potential flow on effects from Trump’s stated economic policies,” James Woods, global investment analyst at Rivkin Securities in Sydney.

According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls probably increased by 175,000 jobs last month, picking up from the 156,000 jobs added in December. The unemployment rate is expected to be unchanged at 4.7 percent in January, near a nine-year low.

The S&P 500 settled at levels around six weeks ago, losing steam due to lingering investor anxiety about U.S. President Donald Trump’s aggressive policies, such as restricting travel to the United States and rewriting trade deals.

The Fed held interest rates steady on Wednesday in its first meeting since Trump took office, but painted a relatively upbeat picture of the U.S. economy that suggested it was on track to tighten monetary policy this year.

Markets had run up sharply following Trump’s Nov. 8 election win on the expectation that tax cuts, deregulation and a fiscal stimulus would accelerate economic growth.

China’s markets reopen trade after a week long holiday with investors wary that a slowing economy may force investors to lock in profits. In Hong Kong, the benchmark index fell on Thursday, led by property firms and casino companies.

In currency markets, the dollar was pinned near its weakest level against a basket of major rivals since mid-November amid uncertainty about the Trump’s administration mixed comments on the greenback.

The Australian dollar gave back some of its strong gains on Thursday after a record December trade surplus burnished its appeal among foreign investors. It was trading at 0.7653 per dollar after hitting a high of 0.7696 per dollar in the previous session.

Oil prices were broadly flat as traders grew less concerned about tensions between the United States and Iran. Brent futures settled around $56.56 a barrel.