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Asia in cautious mood as Omicron spreads, U.S. CPI looms

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SYDNEY — Asian share markets got off to a cautious start on Monday as Omicron emerged in more countries and investors faced a week-long wait for key U.S. inflation figures that could settle the course of interest rates.

A mixed U.S. jobs report did little to shake market expectations of a more aggressive tightening by the Federal Reserve and the consumer price report due on Friday was likely to make the case for an early tapering.

Omicron remained a concern as the variant spread to about one-third of U.S. states, though there were reports from South Africa that cases there had mild symptoms. [

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Early trade was sluggish as MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan inched down 0.2%.

Japan’s Nikkei eased 0.7%, even as the government considered raising its economic growth forecast to account for a record $490 billion stimulus package.

Wall Street was looking to rally after Friday’s late slide, with S&P 500 futures adding 0.4% and Nasdaq futures 0.1%. While headline U.S. payrolls had underwhelmed in November, the survey of households was far stronger with a 1.1 million jump in jobs taking unemployment down to 4.2%. “We think the Fed will view the economy as much closer to full employment than previously thought,” said Barclays economist Michael Gapen.

“Hence, we expect an accelerated taper at the December meeting, followed by the first rate hike in March. We continue to expect three 25 basis point hikes in 2022.”

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The futures market is almost fully priced for a hike to 0.25% by May and 0.5% by November.

The hawkish outlook is one reason BofA chief investment strategist Michael Hartnett is bearish on equities for 2022, expecting a “rates shock” and a tightening of financial conditions.

He favors real assets, real estate, commodities, volatility, cash and emerging markets, while bonds, credit and equities could struggle.

For now, short-term Treasury yields are being pushed higher but the longer-end has rallied as investors wager an earlier start to hikes will mean slower economic growth and inflation over time and a lower peak for the funds rate.

Ten-year U.S. yields dived almost 13 basis points last week and were last at 1.38%, shrinking the spread over two-years to the smallest this year.

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The rise in short-term rates has helped underpin the U.S. dollar, particularly against growth-leveraged currencies which are seen as vulnerable to the spread of the Omicron variant.

The U.S. dollar hit 13-month peaks on the Australian and New Zealand dollars but its index was relatively steady on the majors at 96.214.

The euro was holding at $1.1303 and above its recent trough at $1.1184, while the dollar lost ground on the safe haven yen to 112.94.

Bitcoin shed a fifth of its value on Saturday as a profit-taking and macro-economic concerns triggered nearly a billion dollars worth of selling across cryptocurrencies.

Bitcoin last at $49,436, having been as low as $41,967 over the weekend.

In commodities, gold found some support from the decline in longer-term bond yields but has been trading sideways for several months in a $1,720/1,870 range. Early Monday, it was steady at $1,783 an ounce.

Oil prices have been far more volatile as supply constraints war with worries about demand as Omicron spreads. Lately prices have come off the boil with Brent and U.S. crude falling for six straight weeks.

On Monday the market was attempting a bounce with Brent rising $1.29 to $71.17 a barrel, while U.S. crude added $1.30 to $67.56 per barrel.

(Reporting by Wayne Cole; Editing by Sam Holmes)

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