China stocks top performers in 2014, oil plunges, dollar sees best gain in nine years

By Reuters

Dec 31, 2014 12:27 AM EST

Chinese stocks were celebrating their best year in five on Wednesday while markets elsewhere in Asia were ending 2014 on a cautionary note as worries about Greece's future in the eurozone served as an excuse to take profits on crowded trades.

The U.S. dollar lost a little of its recent gains, but the euro got no respite as European bonds yields scored all-time lows following a shockingly sharp fall in Spanish inflation.

The stand-out global equity performer was China, where the CSI300 index of the largest listed companies in Shanghai and Shenzhen looked set to end 2014 with gains of nearly 50 percent, the biggest among the world's major markets.

Almost all of China's rise came in the last couple of months, as hopes for more aggressive policy stimulus to counter its economic slowdown boosted banks and brokerages.

Featuring on Wednesday were hefty gains for China's biggest train makers, China CNR and CSR Corp, after the two firms confirmed a $26 billion merger.

Trade elsewhere was thinned by holidays in Japan, Thailand, South Korea and the Philippines, while many markets in Europe are either shut or finish early on Wednesday.

Australia and Singapore were all but flat for the day. MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan edged up 0.2 percent but was still ending the year almost exactly where it started.

The Nikkei fared better with a rise of 7.1 percent for the year, thanks chiefly to the Bank of Japan's extraordinary campaign of asset buying which lowered the yen while fattening exporters' profit margins.

Asia's worst performer in 2014 was South Korea, where the KOSPI lost 4.8 percent for the year, partly on fears that the sliding yen would give Japanese exporters a greater competitive advantage over their Asian rivals.

Among the scraps of news in Asia was a final measure of December Chinese manufacturing from HSBC. Activity shrank for the first time in seven months but was little changed from a preliminary reading and only reinforced expectations that Beijing will have to roll out more economic support measures in coming months.

On Wall Street, the S&P 500 eased 0.49 percent on Tuesday but was still on track for a third straight year of double-digit returns. The Dow fell 0.31 percent, while the Nasdaq lost 0.61 percent.

In currencies, the dollar was on track to end 2014 with a gain of 12 percent against a basket of major currencies, its best performance since 2005, and anticipated U.S. interest rake hikes may strengthen its appeal in the new year.

It eased against the safe haven yen to stand at 119.41 from Tuesday's peak of 120.69.

The euro was undermined by sliding European yields amid intense speculation the European Central Bank will have to start buying government bonds to avert deflation.

The single currency was stuck at $1.2162 having touched a 29-month trough of $1.2123.

German yields hit a new record low on Tuesday, ending 2014 with their biggest annual fall in six years, while yields in Italy and Spain also reached historic lows.

Data out on Tuesday showed Spanish consumer prices fell in December at their fastest rate since July 2009, largely as a result of cheaper oil.

The steep decline made it more likely that inflation for the entire euro zone while slip into negative territory when the data are released on Jan. 7, far below the ECB's target of just under 2 percent.

There was little sign of an end to oil's stunning decline after it hit lows last seen in May 2009. Brent fell 64 cents to $57.26, leaving it down 48 percent for the year, while U.S. crudelost 47 cents to $53.65 a barrel.

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