Asian shares slip on faltering hopes for COVID vaccines

Hong Kong: Stocks fell back across Asia on Thursday after gains for big technology shares pushed most Wall Street benchmarks higher.

News of potentially effective vaccines for COVID-19 has been countered by concerns over the logistical challenges of ensuring access to billions of people and over rising caseloads that are leading governments to re-instate restrictions on business and other activities to battle the pandemic.

Vaccine trades reversed to give way to ‘stay home’ trades” as shares of companies that do well when people stay home and work remotely rallied, Mizuho Bank said in a commentary. But it added, Fact of the matter is, progress on vaccine development is at worst two steps forward one step back, and not one step forward and two steps back on a sustained basis.”

Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 index gained 0.4% to 25,459.13 despite a report that machinery orders fell in September, suggesting weakness in corporate investment.

But the mood was more sombre elsewhere in Asia.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index fell 0.1% to 26,206.78 and the Shanghai Composite index declined 0.3% to 3,332.24. In Seoul, the Kospi gave up 0.2% to 2,480.95. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 slipped 0.2% to 6434.60.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average edged 0.1% lower, to 29,397.63, dragged back by weaker prices for companies like American Express and Walt Disney, that had shot up this week after news of a potentially successful vaccine sent travel, entertainment and tourism companies surging.

The Dow declined shortly after news crossed that New York would put restrictions on bars, restaurants and gyms as COVID-19 infections rose in the state.

Markets have been riding a wave of relief over hopes for a potential vaccine to beat back the pandemic. The S&P 500 rose 0.8%, to 3,572.66 and is just 8 points below the record high it set in September. The technology-heavy Nasdaq composite rose 2%, to 11,786.43.

While several significant risks remain for Wall Street broadly, the optimistic case that investors are embracing is that one or more coronavirus vaccines could help corral the virus by the second half of next year, encouraging people to return to life as it was before the pandemic.

All that economic activity would come on top of the tremendous aid that the Federal Reserve and other central banks around the world are pumping into the economy through very low-interest rates and massive purchases of bonds. Hope also remains that the US government may eventually deliver some form of support for the economy, though its total size would likely be smaller than if Democrats had swept this month’s elections.

Strategists along Wall Street are raising their forecasts for stock prices on expectations that political control of Washington will remain split between the parties. Republicans look set to keep the Senate, as long as runoff elections go their way in Georgia in January, while Democrats will hold the House of Representatives.

Democrat Joe Biden has clinched enough electoral votes to win the White House, clearing some of the uncertainty that weighed on the market through the vicious campaign. Even though President Donald Trump has refused to concede, investors are ignoring his complaints so far. They’re instead working on the assumption that a split Washington under Biden could keep tax rates low while offering more steady and predictable policies.

Those expected results helped push strategists at Goldman Sachs to raise their forecast for the S&P 500 at the end of this year to 3,700 from 3,600. That would imply another 4.4% climb from Tuesday’s closing level. They expect it to rally another 16% through 2021. But the biggest driver for that is the hope for a return to normal life, rather than what happens in Washington.

In another trading, benchmark US crude oil picked up 19 cents to 41.64 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It climbed 9 cents to 41.45 on Wednesday.

Brent crude, the international standard, added 17 cents to 43.97 per barrel.

The US dollar weakened to 105.31 Japanese yen from 105.42 yen. The euro rose to 1.1781 from 1.1776.