January 16, 2020 / 8:44 AM / 3 months ago

China's yuan barely moves, stocks slip as investors weigh Phase 1 trade deal

* Offshore, onshore yuan edges up slightly

* Shanghai Composite index -0.52%, CSI300 -0.42%

* Hong Kong shares end 0.38% higher

* Analysts see trade optimism already priced in

By Andrew Galbraith and Winni Zhou

SHANGHAI, Jan 16 (Reuters) - China's yuan held steady while stocks fell on Thursday after Beijing and Washington signed a Phase 1 deal to defuse their trade war, with financial markets taking on a cautious tone as many thorny issues remained unresolved.

The partial trade agreement signed on Wednesday still retained tariffs imposed by the two sides over the last 18 months, while structural differences that led to the conflict were not addressed.

The yuan ended its domestic trading session at 6.8850 per dollar, 0.07% firmer on the day and its strongest such close since July 30. Relief that the Phase 1 deal had finally been signed and a stronger central bank guidance rate helped to support the currency, which flirted with small losses in the afternoon.

The People's Bank of China (PBOC) set the midpoint fixing for its daily trading band at 6.8807 per dollar on Thursday, its firmest level since July 26 and slightly stronger than the previous day's fixing of 6.8845.

The yuan has rallied more than 2.5% since early December, lifted by the trade deal and other signs of easing tensions between Washington and Beijing. It touched a six-month peak of 6.8661 per dollar on Tuesday.

In the offshore market, the yuan was slightly stronger, up 0.1% from Wednesday's close to change hands at 6.8846 per dollar around 0830 GMT. It had touched 6.8662 per dollar, its strongest level since July 26, on Tuesday.

Jacqueline Rong, senior China economist at BNP Paribas in Beijing said the currency pact in the Phase 1 trade deal largely matched market forecasts.

"The highlight of the currency agreement was that both parties should respect the other's autonomy in monetary policy, and this has relieved previous market concern that China might pledge to keep the yuan at a certain range and restrict its own monetary policy manoeuvre."

While the Phase 1 deal directs Beijing to maintain a market-driven currency, a trader at a Chinese bank in Shanghai said he does not think it will affect the country's currency policy.

He expects the PBOC will still likely to use a counter-cyclical factor in setting each day's midpoint fixing to reduce price swings in the yuan when needed.

Analysts at OCBC Wing Hang bank agreed that the impact of the preliminary deal was limited.

"Markets will be watching the timeline for reducing tariffs and the development of Phase 2 negotiations," they said. "We feel that although Sino-U.S. trade talks will remain a driving factor, economic fundamentals will have a larger impact on the yuan in 2020."

PROFIT TAKING

Chinese stocks, which have also rallied on optimism over a trade truce, showed little further enthusiasm on the deal's signing. While the agreement has helped bolster shaky business confidence, it is only expected to give a modest boost to the cooling economy.

The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index, which gained 7.6% from the end of November through to Wednesday's close, opened higher before stalling on profit-taking. It finished the day down 0.52%. The blue-chip CSI300 index fell 0.42%.

A-shares have already factored in good news about the trade deal, and investors were cautious ahead of the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, said Zhang Gang, an analyst with China Central Securities.

The market could take a hit if heavyweight firms' earnings disappoint, he said.

In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng also oscillated between small gains and losses, but eked out a 0.38% gain on the day. The Hang Seng China Enteprises index rose 0.29%.

"Given the amount of speculation by the markets and commentary by officials ahead of Wednesday's signing, it is unsurprising markets have not rallied too strongly upon final signing," said Hannah Anderson, global markets strategist at J.P. Morgan Asset Management.

"Fundamentally, this deal does little to alter either the U.S. or Chinese economies," she added, noting that tariffs remain high and key issues in the U.S.-China relationship "remain unaddressed."

Benchmark Chinese 10-year government bond futures were little-changed, with the most-traded contract for March delivery down 0.09% at 98.450. (Reporting by Andrew Galbraith, Winni Zhou and Luoyan Liu; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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