Asian stocks meander as markets await well telegraphed decision on ECB stimulus

Asian stock markets meandered Thursday ahead of a well telegraphed announcement later in the day of additional European Central Bank stimulus.

KEEPING SCORE: Hong Kong’s Hang Seng added 0.4 per cent to 24,458.12 and South Korea’s Kospi was up 0.1 per cent to 1,924.01. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 gained 0.4 per cent to 5,412.80. Other major markets drifted lower, with Japan’s Nikkei 225 down 0.2 per cent at 17,240.12. China’s Shanghai Composite fell 0.2 per cent to 3,317.01.

EUROPEAN STIMULUS: Markets are waiting to see how much financial firepower the European Central Bank will unleash Thursday, when it is expected to announce large-scale purchases of government bonds with newly printed money to stimulate a sluggish economy and prevent deflation. Analysts expect the ECB will commit to buying 500 billion euros ($580 billion) in bonds a year or nearly $50 billion a month. A smaller program could spark a sell-off in stock markets.

THE QUOTE: “As long as the ECB president shows enough determination to reinforce his commitment to ‘do whatever it takes,’ I would expect the positive trends in the European equity markets to continue,” said Chris Weston, chief market strategist at IG in Melbourne, Australia. “I think pullbacks on any disappointment seem like good buying opportunities,” he said in a market commentary.

WALL STREET: A choppy day on Wall Street ended with stocks broadly higher on hopes of new stimulus measures for Europe’s weak economy and a rise in oil prices. The S&P 500 rose 9.57 points, or 0.5 per cent, to close at 2,032.12. It was third straight day of gains for the index, a first in the new year. The Dow Jones industrial average climbed 39.05 points, or 0.2 per cent, to 17,554.28. The Nasdaq gained 12.58 points, or 0.3 per cent, to 4,667.42.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude continued to languish after falling more than 40 per cent in the past three months amid high supplies and weakening growth in demand. The contract was down 38 cents at $47.40 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose $1.31 to close at $47.78 on Wednesday. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils, was down 13 cents at $48.90 a barrel on the ICE exchange in London.

CURRENCIES: The euro was little changed at $1.1599 from $1.1600 the previous day. The dollar was steady against the Japanese currency, inching up to 118.14 yen from 118.13 yen.