Asian stocks in hesitant mood; euro holds gains

Asian share markets were in hesitant mood on Wednesday as investors keep a wary eye on interest rates in China, though the euro left the dollar in its dust after more soft US economic data.

The action was light, with MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan barely changed and Australia up a slim 0.3%. Shanghai stocks were flat while Seoul lost 0.6%.

Japan's Nikkei pared its early losses to be off 0.6%, battling to maintain the momentum of Tuesday's 3% rally which followed a decision by the Bank of Japan to expand a scheme to encourage more bank lending.

The move was taken as a sign that the central bank was open to further easing steps, which many expect will be needed once an increase in Japan's sales tax is enacted in April.

Dealers will also be carefully watching China's central bank after it drained funds from the money market on Tuesday.

The People's Bank of China (PBOC) is trying to engineer a gradual upward shift in the cost of money to encourage companies to deleverage and discourage high-risk shadow banking activity.

Investors are anxious in case the tightening goes too far and hurts economic growth, concerns that have periodically put pressure on currencies and shares across the Asian region.

Wall Street failed to offer much of a lead with the Dow off 0.15% on Tuesday, while the S&P 500 added 0.11%. The Nasdaq fared better with a gain of 0.68%, bringing its winning streak to eight straight sessions, the longest since July.

The tech-heavy index was boosted by a jump in the shares of Tesla Motors Inc on speculation Apple might be interested in bidding for the electric car maker.

Disappointing data on New York manufacturing and US housing added to the case for the Federal Reserve to be patient in its tapering plans and pushed Treasury yields lower, so undermining the dollar's interest rate advantage.

Yields on the benchmark 10-year US Treasury note eased 4 basis points to 2.71%.

Later on Wednesday, the Fed will release minutes of its January policy meeting when it decided to trim its asset buying by another $10 billion.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen has since indicated that the central bank was still inclined to keep tapering, though markets assume the run of soft data will encourage patience in its efforts.

MIND THE GAP

The euro was holding broad-based gains after the dollar took a hit from the soft economic data and news that foreign investors had been heavy sellers of US assets.

The euro was up at $1.3766 in Asian trade, having stretched as far as $1.3769 overnight, its highest in seven weeks and breaching a key resistance barrier at $1.3740.

The euro was also firm at 140.70 yen, while the dollar eased back to 102.19 yen.

Dealers have been surprised by the single currency's resilience given speculation the European Central Bank would have to ease further to avert the risk of deflation.

Figures from the US Treasury on Tuesday hinted at one possible reason for the euro's performance -- an outflow of almost $120 billion from US assets in December.

Alan Ruskin, global head of G10 currency strategy at Deutsche Bank in New York, noted that the net outflow from US equities over 2013 has amounted to a huge $214 billion.

In contrast, the euro zone attracted inflows into stocks of 111 billion euros. At the same time, the euro zone enjoyed a record current account surplus of 216 billion euros in 2013, while the United States ran up a deficit of almost $400 billion.

"That the euro was the strongest major currency in 2013 is easily - with all the benefit of hindsight - explained by this current account and equity flow gap," Ruskin said.

In commodity markets, gold slipped to $1,316.99 an ounce after running into selling at a 3-1/2-month peak of $1,331.10.

US crude rose to a fresh four-month high on forecasts of lower crude and oil products stockpiles due to new pipeline capacity and robust winter demand.

Nymex crude futures were 44 cents higher at $102.87, having jumped 2.4% on Tuesday, while Brent crude edged down 7 cents to $110.39 a barrel.

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