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Most Asia markets lose ground, with Nikkei ending tad down after topsy-turvy trade

Gary Burke | Getty Images

Most Asian markets retreated Wednesday as traders moved their chips amid concerns the U.S. Federal Reserve may hike interest rates soon, with Japan's shares ending a tad down after topsy-turvy trade.

The Federal Open Market Committee is scheduled to release its April meeting minutes at 2 p.m. ET Wednesday and many analysts are concerned the minutes could be more hawkish than the statement that followed April's meeting.

That concern got some juice from comments by San Francisco Fed President John Williams and Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart, who said the Fed could still raise rates two or three times this year, according to a Reuters report.

The benchmark Nikkei 225 index spent the session like a cat at a door, unwilling to decide if she wanted to stay in or out, before ending up flopped in the doorway, with the indicator ending down just 0.05 percent, or 8.11 points, at 16,644.69, after oscillating between positive and negative.

Traders were likely weighing whether the good news from better-than expected economic growth data, released shortly before market open, was good or bad news for markets.

Japan's gross domestic product (GDP) for the January-to-March period grew faster than expected, with real GDP rising 0.4 percent on quarter compared with a Reuters poll forecast for 0.1 percent growth. Annualized GDP for the period grew 1.7 percent, compared with expectations from a Reuters poll for 0.2 percent growth.

The market had expected that a poor reading would spur additional easing measures from the Bank of Japan (BOJ) - in other words, that bad news would have been good news for traders.

Shares turned higher as traders appeared to focus on the benefits to the market if the Fed hikes rates, a move which would strengthen the U.S. dollar and weaken the yen, but those gains proved short-lived.

The yen also wavered in reaction to the data. A weaker yen is generally considered a positive for the country's equities, particularly exporters, which will see their profits flattered when overseas earnings are repatriated. The Japanese currency climbed as high as 108.70 against the U.S. dollar and as weak as 109.51 in late afternoon trade, compared with around 109.09 before the data. At 3:02 p.m. SIN/HK time, the U.S. dollar was fetching 109.45 yen.

Other markets in the region were mostly lower.

Down Under, the S&P/ASX 200 ended down 0.74 percent, or 39.67 points, at 5356.20, dragged by a 0.83 percent decline in the heavily weighted financials sub-index. That was offset by continued gains in the energy sector, which added 0.24 percent.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index shed 1.54 percent by 3:03 p.m. SIN/HK time. On the mainland, the Shanghai Composite ended down 1.28 percent, or 36.53 points, at 2807.15, and the Shenzhen Composite finished off 2.68 percent, or 48.60 points, at 1766.08. South Korea's Kospi index shed 0.58 percent, or 11.33 points, to end at 1956.73.

Symbol
Name
Price
 
Change
%Change
NIKKEI
---
HSI
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ASX 200
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SHANGHAI
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KOSPI
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CNBC 100
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While analysts said Japan's GDP data were likely strong enough to prevent full-bore easing measures from the BOJ, the numbers may have helped to drive shares of the country's banks higher, with speculation that the central bank may take targeted steps.

Mizuho Financial climbed 2.68 percent, Mitsubishi UFJ tacked on 4.25 percent and SMFG rose 3.42 percent.

"The anticipation is the BOJ will pass on the benefits of negative interest rates to the banking sector," potentially by providing loans to banks at negative rates, said Amir Anvarzadeh, director of Japan equity sales at BGC Securities. "Negative rates until now have obviously hurt their earnings."

In late January, the BOJ adopted a negative interest rate policy, charging banks for parking excess funds with the central bank as a means of encouraging lending. Counterintuitively, the move sent stocks lower and strengthened the yen.

The Nikkei was weighed by a selloff in auto shares, led by Suzuki.

Suzuki shares tumbled 9.37 percent, but retraced some losses after hitting their lowest levels in two years after Japan media reported the company had used improper fuel economy testing methods.

After the market close, a company executive said in a press conference that the improper methods were applied from around 2010, affecting only cars sold in Japan. The executive said there were no signs employees were trying to improperly boost fuel economy data, but rather were trying to get stable figures given strong winds at the test course. The company doesn't expect it will need to correct the reported feul economy data.

Other auto shares also lost ground, with Honda shedding 1.24 percent. Bucking the trend, Mitsubishi Motors added 3.93 percent after the Nikkei newspaper reported that the car maker's president would step down after the April scandal over improper fuel economy data for the company's cars.

Some energy shares extended Tuesday's gains as continued concerns over supply outages in Venezuela, Nigeria and Canada boosted oil prices. In Japan, Inpex jumped 8.09 percent after rising 3.16 percent Tuesday.

But in Australia, Santos shed 0.46 percent after rising 6.3 percent Tuesday and Woodside fell 0.83 percent after tacking on 2.88 percent Tuesday.

U.S. crude oil futures rose 0.06 percent to $48.34 a barrel in Asia trade at 3:07 p.m. SIN/HK time after settling up 1.2 percent at its highest since October in the U.S. session. Brent added 0.14 percent to $49.35.

In Singapore, Noble shares dropped 6.06 percent by 3:08 p.m. SIN/HK time after Fitch downgraded its rating to BB+ from BBB-, saying the company's shift toward shorter term financing will lead to a weakening debt maturity profile that isn't consistent with an investment grade rating.

The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 180.73 points, or 1.02 percent, at 17,529.98, the S&P 500 closed down 19.45 points, or 0.94 percent, at 2,047.21, and the Nasdaq composite closed down 59.73 points, or 1.25 percent, at 4,715.73.

- Evelyn Cheng contributed to this article

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—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1