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article imageAsian traders tread carefully as quarter draws to a close

By AFP     Mar 30, 2017 in Business

Asian investors moved cautiously Friday following a Wall Street rally inspired by better-than-expected US economic growth data, while South Africa's rand plunged after President Jacob Zuma sacked his respected finance minister.

US investors cheered news that growth hit 2.1 percent in the last three months of 2016, which was 0.2 points better than first thought, with crucial consumer spending seeing a strong increase.

The result provided some much-needed support to markets after Donald Trump's failure last week to push through his healthcare bill stoked fears he would have trouble with his promised tax-cut and spending promises -- a key driver of a global rally since November.

"It's only a small upgrade but the marginal increase... seemed to have an outsized impact on sentiment," said Greg McKenna, chief market strategist at AxiTrader.

"That and the fact that the consumption component was upgraded seem to have been the key to reinforcing the strength of the US economy. We haven't really seen any US data printing worse than expected for some months now. But for the moment the economy is supporting stocks in the US."

While Wall Street enjoyed advances, Asian investors were not as impressed and positioned themselves as they closed their books before the end of the quarter.

Tokyo closed the morning up 0.7 percent thanks to a weaker yen but Hong Kong slipped 0.5 percent, Seoul lost 0.1 percent, Sydney was flat and Taipei shed 0.1 percent.

Shanghai was barely moved as investors were also unimpressed by a forecast-beating reading on Chinese factory activity.

- Rand slumps -

The dollar rose against the yen and the euro, with support also coming from comments two top Federal Reserve officials on Wednesday and Thursday suggesting the central bank should raise interest rates another three times this year.

It also surged five percent against the rand after Zuma sacked finance minister Pravin Gordhan, who had enjoyed the support of many international investors and had campaigned for budget discipline.

South African rand
South African rand
Gal ROMA, AFP

He was also widely admired by ordinary South Africans and veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle and there are fears his removal -- along with several top cabinet members -- could precipitate a split in the ruling African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela.

The decision comes as the government struggles to get a grip on the once-booming economy of South Africa, one of the continent's biggest and part of the so-called BRICS grouping that includes China.

The South African currency has plunged almost eight percent since Monday when fears were first sparked by Zuma ordering Gordham to return to the country from an overseas trip.

"Market reaction to the cabinet reshuffle and what looks to have been a clean sweep of the Treasury top team is going to be a significant negative," Razia Khan, chief Africa economist at Standard Chartered, told Bloomberg News.

Oil prices dipped in Asia but held above $50 a barrel after Thursday's gains of more than one percent, which came after Kuwait suggested agreed output cuts by OPEC and Russia could be pushed past a June expiry.

"It looks like they will potentially extend the cuts," Mark Watkins, at US Bank, said. "Even though there’s been skepticism about OPEC and its partners, the signs are pointing toward their success."

- Key figures at 0230 GMT -

Tokyo - Nikkei 225: UP 0.7 percent at 19,188.83 (break)

Hong Kong - Hang Seng: DOWN 0.5 percent at 24,189.57

Shanghai - Composite: FLAT at 3,210.44

Euro/dollar: UP at $1.0683 from $1.0679

Pound/dollar: UP at $1.2484 from $1.2467

Dollar/yen: UP at 112.07 yen from 111.86

Oil - West Texas Intermediate: DOWN 14 cents at $50.21 per barrel

Oil - Brent North Sea: DOWN 13 cents at $52.83

New York - Dow: UP 0.3 percent at 20,728.49 (close)

London - FTSE 100: DOWN 0.1 percent at 7,369.52 (close)

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