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Asian shares subdued after Bannon departure as US-South Korea military drills begin

Key Points
  • Steve Bannon vacated the role of White House chief strategist, becoming the latest high-ranking official to depart the Trump administration
  • U.S.-South Korea joint military drills began
  • Shares of China Unicom's Hong Kong-listed unit soared as trade in its shares resumed Monday

Asia markets closed mixed in Monday trade as investors digested political developments in Washington while U.S.-South Korea joint military drills kicked off.

Japan's slid 0.40 percent, or 77.28 points, to close at 19,393.13, as gains in oil stocks were offset by softness in most automakers, financials and technology names. The benchmark index had fallen to its lowest levels in more than three and a half months earlier in the session.

Across the Korean strait, the Kospi shed 0.14 percent, or 3.37 points, to close at 2,355, as U.S.-South Korea military exercises began.

The joint military drills, which will take place from Aug. 21 to Aug. 31, come on the back of a ramp up in geopolitical tensions earlier this month after a heated exchange of rhetoric between President Donald Trump and Pyongyang.

Down Under, the S&P/ASX 200 declined 0.37 percent, or 21.212 points, to finish the session at 5,725.900, with weakness in the health care and telecommunication services sub-indexes leading losses. The heavily-weighted financials sub-index traded lower by 0.29 percent.

Greater China markets bucked the downward trend to climb higher. Hong Kong's gained 0.48 percent by 3:15 p.m. HK/SIN. On the mainland, the advanced 0.57 percent, or 18.5977 points, to close at 3,287.3220 and the Shenzhen Composite rose 0.745 percent, or 14.1648 points, to end at 1,916.4186.

Asia-Pacific Market Indexes Chart

Steve Bannon on Friday became the latest high-ranking official to leave the White House when he vacated the role of President Donald Trump's chief strategist. Media reports said Bannon's resignation had been submitted earlier in August, but its announcement had been pushed back due to violence from a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

While the ouster resulted in a positive reaction in risk assets — major U.S. indexes had fallen sharply last Thursday on rumors that National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn could leave — its impact on markets was short-lived, one expert said.

"From a market perspective ... Bannon's departure doesn't change Trump's strong views on immigration, border security and trade protection," National Australia Bank currency strategist Rodrigo Catril said in a Monday note.

On Wall Street, stocks closed above session lows on Friday after news of Bannon's departure, with the Dow Jones industrial average declining 0.35 percent, or 76.22 points, to close at 21,674.51.

The Trump administration has had a choppy past few weeks, which culminated in the disbanding of two advisory councils comprised of top business executives. Several business leaders from those bodies had resigned before the official dissolution due to the president's response to Charlottesville.

Ahead, markets will await the Federal Reserve's Jackson Hole symposium beginning August 24 for potential clues on the central bank's monetary policy plans. European Central Bank President Mario Draghi will be in attendance, but Reuters reported last week that he would not be disclosing new ECB plans during his speech.

In corporate news, there's interest in telecommunications operator China Unicom, which announced Sunday it would raise $11.7 billion in funds as part of mixed ownership reform plans, Reuters reported. $9.25 billion of those funds would come from a private placement.

Media reports highlighted confusion over details in China Unicom's initial press release last week, which was subsequently withdrawn from the Shanghai Stock Exchange. Shares of the telco's Hong Kong-listed unit resumed trade on Monday and climbed 5.03 percent by 3:11 p.m. HK/SIN after jumping as high as 10 percent earlier in the session.

On the earnings front, Australia's Fortescue Metals Group said Monday that net profit rose 113 percent to $2.09 billion for the year ended June 30, 2017. Fortescue shares closed 6.36 percent higher after the miner announced a larger dividend than expected.

Other market movers included Australian steel company Bluescope, which saw its stock close down 21.83 percent after the company highlighted a weaker outlook for earnings due to competition and lower U.S. margins.

Oil prices slid after holding onto Friday's gains for most of the Asian trading session. Global benchmark Brent crude futures slipped 0.36 percent to trade at $52.53 a barrel and U.S. crude shed 0.25 percent to trade at $48.39. Oil had risen more than 3 percent on Friday on weakness in the dollar and a drop in U.S. oil rigs.

In currencies, the dollar index, which measures the U.S. currency against a basket of currencies, edged up to stand at 93.529 at 3:05 p.m. HK/SIN.

However, the greenback lost ground against the yen, with the dollar fetching just 109.02 yen compared to levels around the 109.20 handle seen for Asian trade — firmly below the 110 level seen at the beginning of last week.

"White House politics will remain in play, but given some of the outsized currency moves of late, it's not too surprising dealers are paring short dollar risk as the shift to the Jackson Hole summit will put the focus back on central bank watch," OANDA head of APAC trading Stephen Innes said in a Monday note.

The board of governors of Bank Indonesia, the country's central bank, will also begin its monthly two-day meeting Monday.

Clarification: This article has been updated following a Reuters correction on how much China Unicom is raising.