HONG KONG (REUTERS) – Asian share markets weakened sharply in late trading on Tuesday (Nov 30), giving up earlier gains as investors worried the Omicron variant will prove more resistant to vaccines and could cause more widespread global economic disruption.
The region’s trading followed a brighter lead from Wall Street on Monday which reacted positively to news from United States President Joe Biden that new lockdowns as a result of the variant were off the table for now.
Positive sentiment, though, was replaced swiftly with a sudden burst of risk aversion in most major asset markets across Asia after the head of drugmaker Moderna told the Financial Times that Covid-19 vaccines are unlikely to be as effective against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus as they have been against the Delta variant.
Moderna chief executive Stephane Bancel said he foresees a “material drop” in the effectiveness of current jabs against the new variant and warned it would take months before pharmaceutical companies can manufacture new variant-specific jabs at scale.
“It’s not good news, and it’s coming from someone who should know,” said Commonwealth Bank of Australia currency strategist Joe Capurso. “Markets have reacted in exactly the way you’d expect them to with Aussie and kiwi taking the brunt.”
Both the Australian and New Zealand dollars tumbled, with the Australian dollar at US$0.7112, near its lowest in a year.
MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was 0.45 per cent lower later on Tuesday after initially being up as much as 0.52 per cent.
“In the near term, there is a lot of uncertainty and the markets are starting to price in some level of risk,” said Mr Jack Siu, Credit Suisse’s chief investment officer for Greater China.
“Essentially the recovery should stay under way but we are in an environment of volatility.”
Singapore’s Straits Times Index slid sharply lower, down 1.38 per cent at 2.06pm.
In Australia, the S&P/ASX200 closed up 0.22 per cent after earlier being up 1.15 per cent.
Japan’s Nikkei retraced all of its 1.2 per cent gains notched earlier in the session and was down 1.14 per cent.
Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index shed 2.19 per cent while China’s blue chip CSI 300 index was off 0.3 per cent.
Selling in Hong Kong was exacerbated by the Hang Seng falling below a strong technical support level of 24,000, according to analysts.
In early European trades, the pan-region Euro Stoxx 50 futures were down 0.63 per cent at 4,080, German Dax futures were down 0.43 per cent at 15,209, FTSE futures were down 0.43 per cent at 7,084.5. US stock futures, the S&P 500 e-minis , were down 0.53 per cent at 4,634.3.
“Investors are still trying to digest what the new variant could mean in terms of of any policy response… will there be new restrictions, lockdowns and any impact for monetary policy,” said Mr Alex Wolf, JP Morgan Private Bank’s head of investment strategy for Asia.
Activity in China’s services sector grew at a slightly slower pace in November, official data showed on Tuesday, as the sector took a hit from fresh lockdown measures as the authorities raced to contain the latest outbreak.
The official non-manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) fell to 52.3 in November, from 52.4 in October, data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) showed.
Some investors are still cautious about the impact Omicron could have in disrupting trade, travel and economic activity.
“There are so many unknowns about Omicron and the market has been jumping at shadows,” said Mr James Rosenberg, a Sydney-based financial adviser at EL&C Baillieu said.
“After such a strong run and with elevated valuations, the market will always be susceptible to the odd shakeout on news that could bring risk.”
Tuesday’s volatility came after the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Monday rose 236.6 points, or 0.68 per cent, to 35,135.94, the S&P 500 gained 60.65 points, or 1.32 per cent, to 4,655.27 and the Nasdaq Composite added 291.18 points, or 1.88 per cent, to 15,782.83.
In Asian trading, the yield on benchmark 10-year Treasury notes was at 1.4987 per cent compared with its US close of 1.529 per cent on Monday.
The two-year yield, which rises with traders’ expectations of higher Fed fund rates, touched 0.5039 per cent compared with a US close of 0.51 per cent.
Safe-haven gold ticked higher in Asian trade to be US$1,793.46 per ounce after weakening in the US session on the back of the stronger equities markets.
US crude dipped 1.93 per cent to US$68.6 a barrel. Brent crude fell to US$72.04 per barrel.