HONG KONG (AP) — Asian stocks got off to a weak start Wednesday following sharp declines on Wall Street sparked by growing investor anxiety about a looming U.S. interest rate hike.
KEEPING SCORE: Japan's Nikkei 225 gained 0.5 percent to 18,757.55, getting some relief from the prevailing trend as the dollar strengthened against the yen. South Korea's Kospi lost 0.3 percent to 1,979.17 and Hong Kong's Hang Seng slipped 0.2 percent to 23,838.63. The Shanghai Composite Index in mainland China gained 0.8 percent to 3,313.26 ahead of the release of economic data. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 lost 0.4 percent to 5,800.40. Benchmarks in Southeast Asia declined.
FED FEARS: The prospect that the Federal Reserve will soon raise interest rates for the first time in nine years is unsettling investors. Those odds got a boost after recent data revealed a strengthening job market, most recently with a government report Tuesday that found number of U.S. job postings in January was the highest in 14 years. At the same time, central banks in Europe, Japan, Australia and elsewhere are moving in the opposite direction by bringing down borrowing costs to jumpstart their stagnating economies. Low interest rates and other monetary stimulus have supported stocks for several years but a rate hike from the Fed will foreshadow a return to more levels for credit costs.
THE QUOTE: "Markets are positioning for the possibility of higher interest rates and many world stock markets go into this adjustment from a starting point of relatively high ... values, meaning making them vulnerable to a pull back," Ric Spooner, chief market analyst at CMC Markets in Sydney, wrote in a commentary.
CHINA FOCUS: Investors are watching for the latest batch of monthly economic data on China. Industrial output, investment and retail sales figures will provide an update on the state of the world's No. 2 economy. It is expected to slow further after growing 7.4 percent last year, the lowest growth rate in nearly a quarter-century.
WALL STREET: U.S stocks posted big declines Tuesday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average sank 332.78 points, or 1.9 percent, to 17,662.94. The S&P 500 fell 35.27 points, or 1.7 percent, to end at 2,044.16. The Nasdaq composite lost 82.64 points, or 1.7 percent, to 4,859.79.
ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude rose, climbing 65 cents to $48.94 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell $1.71 to close at $48.29 a barrel on Tuesday. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell 31 cents to $57.18 in London.
CURRENCIES: The dollar strengthened to 121.36 yen from 120.99 yen in the previous session. The euro weakened to $1.0687 from $1.0701.