Asia markets mostly down; Nikkei sells off following disappointing inflation data

Asia markets closed mostly lower on Friday, with Japanese stocks selling off more than 1 percent after soft inflation data prompted concerns over the effectiveness of government stimulus.

The benchmark Nikkei 225 closed down 195.24 points, or 1.18 percent, at 16,360.71.

Across the Korean Strait, the Kospi declined 5.42 points, or 0.27 percent, to 2,037.50. In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index bucked the downward trade to climb 0.33 percent in the afternoon. In Australia, the ASX 200 slipped 26.39 points, or 0.48 percent, to 5,515.50.

Chinese mainland markets also saw a slight rebound Friday afternoon, after major indexes sold-off on Thursday due to concerns over the amount of spare cash in the banking system, as well as fears of an overheating property market.

The Shanghai composite closed near flat at 3,070.47, while the Shenzhen composite added 4.07 points, or 0.20 percent, to 2,023.09.

Traders have mostly sat on the sidelines for much of this week in anticipation of a speech by U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, looking for clues on the direction of U.S. monetary policy. Yellen is scheduled to speak at an economic policy symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on Friday local time.

Symbol
Name
Price
 
Change
%Change
NIKKEI
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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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Opinion among market-watchers is divided on the tone Yellen would set in her speech, with some expecting that a hawkish tone could exert pressure on assets perceived to be risky.

"Traders are not going to be that much happy that easy money is leaving town, so we may see a sell-off for the equity market and for gold as well," Naeem Aslam, chief market analyst at ThinkMarkets, said.

A hawkish tone could also potentially suggest that a rate hike at the Fed's September meeting might be on the cards, which some investors welcomed. On Thursday, Beat Wittmann of Swiss investment advisory firm Porta Advisors told CNBC that a September Fed hike would provide a boost for the rest of the world and allow for a further hike this year.

But others suggested there was little to no possibility of the Fed raising rates before the U.S. presidential elections in November.

Kenneth Polcari, director at O'Neil Securities, told CNBC's "Squawk Box" that the earliest possibility of the Fed raising rates was in December, although he expects it might also happen after a new U.S. president in inaugurated in January 2017. He added that he didn't expect Yellen to say anything out of the ordinary in her Friday speech.

"She's going to keep the door open, she's going to continue to talk about the data, about how we're making slow and steady progress," Polcari said. "She's not going to say ever that rates are not going to go up in 2016, because that would be a huge admission of failure, considering all year long, they've been telling us that rates are going to go [higher]."

Mizuho Bank's senior economist Vishnu Varathan added in a Friday morning note that he expects Yellen's message to be one of "very gradual approach to a neutral rate that is likely to be significantly lower than is historically normal for the U.S.."

Varathan pegged that rate to be between 2.5 to 3 percent, depending on structural global conditions.

In the currency market, the dollar slipped against a basket of currencies, with the dollar index at 94.596, compared to its last close at 94.772.

The Japanese yen remained relatively flat against the dollar, close to the key 100 handle, trading at 100.45 as of 3:02 p.m. HK/SIN. Earlier, the yen strengthened from levels near 100.55 to as high as 100.35 after the government released its July inflation data.

Data from the country's Statistics Bureau showed Japan's core consumer prices, which excludes fresh food, fell 0.5 percent on-year in July, versus a Reuters forecast that expected a 0.4 percent decline. The so-called core-core consumer prices, which excludes food and energy items, rose 0.3 percent on-year in July, but fell 0.2 percent from the previous month.

The preliminary August core consumer prices in Tokyo, released a month in advance compared to the nationwide consumer prices, also fell 0.4 percent on-year.

The decline in consumer prices in Japan will likely put pressure on both the government and the Bank of Japan to do more in their bid to prop up growth in the country's moribund economy. In late July, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had announced a government stimulus package worth 28 trillion yen ($265.30 billion), and in early August, the government approved 13.5 trillion yen in fiscal measures that included 7.5 trillion yen in spending by the national and local governments.

One fund manager told CNBC on Friday that while he is cautious about Japan in the short-term, he sees long-term optimism for the world's third largest economy.

"We need to focus on the fact that the central bank and the government are working closely together to tackle this problem," Masakazu Takeda, a portfolio manager at Hennessy Japan Fund told CNBC's "Squawk Box".

Taylor Weidman | Bloomberg | Getty Images

There are expectations that the disappointing consumer prices data might put pressure on the Bank of Japan to ease its monetary policy further at its next policy meeting. But Takeda said any additional measures of monetary easing and fiscal stimulus is "just a short-term solution to prevent the economy from falling into recession."

"I think what we really need is structural reforms to continue making progress," he said, adding even structural reforms will take time to produce results and have a meaningful impact on the country's economy.

Export stocks in Japan sold off despite the relatively little movement in the yen, with Toyota shares tumbling 3.35 percent, Nissan down 0.87 percent and Sony off 1.19 percent.

In China, the People's Bank of China (PBOC) was set to inject 95 billion yuan ($14.27 billion) into money markets through seven-day reverse bond repurchase agreements and an additional 50 billion yuan through 14-day reverse repos, according to Reuters.

Earlier this week, the PBOC re-introduced the 14-day reverse repos for the first time since February, which prompted renewed concerns about the availability of sufficient cash in the money market.

One trader said the reintroduction of the 14-day reverse repo was nudging borrowers towards longer-term funding and likely start the implementation of a transparent funding band.

"Bondholders typically like funding with the cheapest end of the curve, which is the overnight repo markets, and this move could pressure bond markets as funding cost would move higher," said Stephen Innes, a senior trader at OANDA. "It is also designed to ensure that short-term money gets distributed to the economy and not speculators."

Elsewhere, oil prices moved little during Asian trade on Friday. U.S. crude near flat at $47.33, while global benchmark Brent was down 0.16 percent at $49.59 a barrel.

Stateside, major indexes closed lower, with the Dow Jones industrial average falling 33.07 points, or 0.18 percent, to 18,448.41. The S&P 500 dropped 2.97 points, or 0.14 percent, to end at 2,172.47, while the Nasdaq slipped 5.49 points, or 0.11 percent, to 5,212.20.

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