SYDNEY Asian shares held within one-year peaks on Thursday as Chinese trade data topped forecasts and imports recorded their first annual rise since late 2014, a promising sign for global demand that gave the Australia dollar a lift.
Beijing reported imports rose 1.5 percent in August from a year ago, confounding forecasts of a 4.9 percent drop, while exports from the Asian giant dipped 2.8 percent.
The initial reaction was muted, in part because markets have come to distrust the veracity of Chinese data over the years, though the Aussie did nudge up a touch to $0.7691.
"The improvement in imports is mostly a reflection of stronger domestic demand. Chinese companies are restocking, and also are now expecting prices to start rising," said Wang Jianhui, an economist at Capital Securities.
"We expect exports to stay stable and imports to improve as higher prices spread to more products."
MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan eased 0.1 percent, but that followed four days of gains which took it to the highest since July last year.
South Korean stocks lost 0.3 percent, having also touched a one-year top this week, while Shanghai turned a fraction firmer.
Japan's Nikkei lost 0.3 percent, easing away from a three-month top in the face of a firm yen.
European bourses were predicted to start steady to slightly softer by spreadbetters.
There was little in the way of a lead from Wall Street. The Dow ended Wednesday down 0.06 percent, while the S&P 500 lost 0.02 percent and the Nasdaq added 0.15 percent to eke out a record high finish.
Apple shares rose 0.6 percent, after the biggest company by market value unveiled its new iPhone.
ECB EXTENSION EYED
The main event later on Thursday will be the European Central Bank's regular policy meeting.
Nearly all analysts polled by Reuters expect rates to remain unchanged on Thursday, though there was more uncertainty on whether the ECB would announce an extension of its 80 billion euro of monthly asset buys.
If the central bank were to make that call, it would likely reinforce speculation of more easing before year end and could pressure the euro.
The single currency was parked at $1.1252 on Thursday, just off the week's top of $1.1269.
It jumped earlier in the week when a disappointing reading on the U.S. services sector seemed to diminish the chance of a rate hike from the Federal Reserve and slugged the dollar across the board.
Neither was there much urgency to tighten in the Fed's latest Beige Book report on the economy, which was littered with the words "modest" and "moderate".
In particular, there was little sign of the wage pressures that the Fed is counting on to push inflation higher.
Futures markets imply only around a 15 percent chance of a rate rise in September, climbing to 42 percent for December.
The dollar was off 0.1 percent on a basket of currencies at 94.880, having touched a one-week low of 94.690.
The yen remained firm at 101.67 per dollar due in part to talk the Bank of Japan's board was struggling to agree on a common front for more easing at its policy review later this month.
BOJ Deputy Governor Hiroshi Nakaso said on Thursday the central bank needed to balance the economic benefits of negative rates against its impact on financial sector profits.
In commodity markets, U.S. crude extended an overnight bounce after U.S. inventory data showed what might be the largest weekly stock draw in over three decades.
U.S. crude climbed 79 cents to $46.29 a barrel, while Brent futures rose 75 cents to $48.73.
(Editing by Kim Coghill & Shri Navaratnam)