Asian shares sluggish, China policy puzzles

Asian shares were trading sluggishly on Wednesday following a flat finish on Wall Street,

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while concerns over opaque policy moves in China kept investors on edge amid a drought of major economic data.

Chinese share markets eased further after sharp falls on Tuesday, but the losses were relatively limited with Shanghai off 0.3 percent .

Moves were likewise modest across the region, with MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan up 0.04 percent.

In Tokyo, the Nikkei 225 pared early losses to be off just 0.1 percent, following a 1.4 percent gain on Tuesday.

"For the rest of the week, the Nikkei may see directionless trade and a lack of volume because investors need more catalysts to take positions," said Masashi Oda, chief investment officer at Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank.

"The benchmark may stay between 14,500 and 15,000."

Economic data from the United States were too mixed to offer any lead. A closely watched housing survey showed home prices rose slightly more than expected in December, though February consumer confidence fell short of expectations.

The Dow ended Tuesday 0.17 percent lower, while the S&P 500 lost 0.13 percent, a day after touching a record high.

Yields on 10-year U.S. Treasury notes were steady at 2.71 percent after dipping about 4 basis points overnight, leaving them roughly in the middle of the recent 2.57 to 2.79 percent trading range.

Gold edged back to $1,338.46 an ounce and away from a four-month top at $1,343.40.

In currencies, dealers were reporting scant activity ahead of the month end and a slate of major global data next week. The dollar inched up on the yen to 102.30, but could make no headway on the euro at $1.3742.

The single currency has been corralled in a $1.3685-$1.3773 range for the past six sessions.

CHINA PUZZLES

After falling sharply on Tuesday, China's yuan was looking more stable on Wednesday. It was quoted at 6.1270, little changed from Tuesday's close, though that was still early in the Chinese session.

Dealers suspect the People's Bank of China has engineered the recent decline in its currency to inject more two-way volatility into the market and wrong foot speculators that had amassed huge positions wagering on its continued rise.

The Chinese currency has been a favourite among emerging market currencies in 2013, gaining nearly 3 percent even as most of its peers depreciated against the dollar. Most analysts expect it to appreciate another 2-3 percent this year, but the change in direction has rattled confidence.

Some analysts believe the PBOC may be preparing the markets for more reforms.

"Putting such a warning shot over the bows of the FX community could also be seen as a sensible move ahead of any possible widening of the CNY's trading band," said Patrick Perret-Green, an analysts at Australia New Zealand Bank.

ANZ believes the band will be widened to 2 percent from the current 1 percent within the next couple of months, a move toward liberalisation that should be seen as a positive step.

Yet he also cautioned that the weakness was not confined to the yuan and equities. Prices for copper and steel had fallen sharply while money markets rates were broadly lower, a risk-off shift that suggested growing worries about the economy.

"So far, the reaction of other global markets has been remarkably relaxed, if not perverse. It is questionable how long this can persist."

In oil markets, Brent crude edged up 4 cents to $109.55 a barrel, while U.S. oil added 2 cents to $101.85.

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