March 20, 2020 / 12:43 AM / 20 days ago

GLOBAL MARKETS-Asia shares seek calm, dollar rush causing stress

* Asian stock markets : tmsnrt.rs/2zpUAr4

* Stocks try to steady after punishing week

* Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus offers lifeline

* Dollar surges on rush to safety, strains $ borrowers

* Oil firms after biggest daily rally on record

By Wayne Cole

SYDNEY, March 20 (Reuters) - Asian shares sought a reprieve on Friday as Wall Street eked out gains, bonds rallied and oil boasted its biggest bounce on record, though a panicked rush into U.S. dollars suggested the crisis was far from done.

As the spread of the coronavirus brought much of the world to a halt, nations have poured ever-more-massive amounts of stimulus into their economies while central banks have showered markets with cheap dollars to ease funding strains.

Sources told Reuters China was set to unleash trillions of yuan of fiscal stimulus to revive an economy facing its first contraction in four decades.

“The speed and aggression with which authorities are wheeling out measures to cushion the economic fallout from the virus and sewing the seeds for a hopefully rapid recovery, has resonated somewhat in equity markets,” said Ray Attrill, head of FX strategy at NAB.

“Yet there is little doubt that funds need to buy dollars to rebalance hedges in light of the 30% fall in equity markets so far this month,” he added. “The dollar remains the pre-eminent safe-haven asset during time of extreme market stress.”

The dollar’s surge is a nightmare for the many countries and companies that have borrowed heavily in the dollar, leading to yet more selling of emerging market currencies in a negative feedback loop.

Such was the stress that dealers hear whispers of a new Plaza Accord, the 1985 agreement when major central banks used mass intervention to restrain a rampant dollar.

For now, investors in Asia were merely happy Wall Street had not plunged again and South Korean shares bounced 2.6%, though that still left them down 15% for the week.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan firmed 0.6%, while Australia’s beleaguered market rose 2.9%. Japan’s Nikkei went the other way and dipped 1%.

Gains in tech stocks had helped the Dow rise 0.95% on Thursday, while the S&P 500 gained 0.47% and the Nasdaq 2.3%.

However, E-Mini futures for the S&P 500 slipped 1.7% in early Asian trade on Friday, a pattern of weakness seen every day this week.

OIL RALLIES

Aiding sentiment was a 25% rally in oil prices overnight. U.S. crude added another 53 cents to $26.44 a barrel on Friday, up from a low of $20.09, while Brent crude stood at $28.46.

This was a major relief as the collapse of crude prices had blown a huge hole in the budgets of many oil producers and forced them to dump any liquid asset to raise cash, with U.S. Treasuries a particular casualty.

That was one reason yields on U.S. 10-year Treasuries had climbed over 100 basis points in just nine sessions to reach 1.279%, before steadying a little at 1.15%.

At the same time, funds across the world were fleeing to the liquidity of U.S. dollars, lifting it to peaks last seen in January 2017 against a basket of its peers.

“Such price action suggests significant market stress, particularly on the wide range of entities outside the U.S. that have borrowed in dollars,” said Richard Franulovich, head of FX strategy at Westpac.

“It could last until global capital flows and investor risk appetite normalises, possibly months away.”

The euro was down near three-year lows at $1.0660, having shed 4% for the week so far - the steepest decline since mid-2010. The dollar was also up 3.2% for the week at 111.33 yen , the largest gain in more than three years.

Sterling sank to its lowest since 1985 after the Bank of England surprised by cutting rates to 0.1%. The pound was last at $1.1484 and down a staggering 6.5% for the week.

The jump in the dollar has made gold more expensive in other currencies and pushed its price down 3.7% for the week to $1,471.39 per ounce.

Editing by Sam Holmes

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