February 21, 2017 / 9:39 AM / 9 months ago

Asia stocks pare losses, dollar flounders as lift from Fed, Mnuchin wanes

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Asian stocks steadied on Thursday after earlier losses, aided by a weaker dollar as markets studied Federal Reserve meeting minutes that indicated both readiness and caution over raising interest rates.

An investor walks in front of an electronic board showing stock information on the first trading day after the New Year holiday at a brokerage house in Shanghai, China, January 3, 2017. REUTERS/Aly Song

European markets were headed for a mixed start, with financial spreadbetter CMC Markets expecting Britain’s FTSE 100 to open 0.3 percent lower, and Germany’s DAX and France’s CAC 40 to start the day slightly higher.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was unchanged, hovering near the highest level since July 2015 it hit on Wednesday. Earlier, the index lost as much as 0.15 percent.

Japan’s Nikkei closed fractionally lower, while Australian shares ended the day down 0.35 percent.

South Korean shares were little changed after the central bank kept interest rates steady at 1.25 percent, as expected, for an eighth straight month.

China’s CSI 300 index, which touched a 2-1/2 month high earlier on Thursday, was 0.5 percent lower after regulators circulated a draft of new rules for the asset management industry aimed a curbing financial risks.

Hong Kong shares, which early on Thursday touched their highest level since September, pulled back to trade 0.3 percent below Wednesday’s close.

Overnight on Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average ended up almost 0.2 percent, its ninth straight record-close.

That optimism however, didn’t flow through to other indexes, with the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq both closing about 0.1 percent lower.

The dollar teetered between slight gains and losses as investors took note of Fed policymakers’ uncertainty over a lack of clarity on President Donald Trump’s economic program. Voting members generally saw only a “modest risk” of inflation increasing significantly and believed the Fed would have “ample time” to respond if it did.

The greenback’s earlier gains were driven by parts of the minutes of the Fed’s Jan. 31-Feb. Meeting, which said it may be appropriate to raise rates again “fairly soon” should jobs and inflation data be in line with expectations.

“A look at the market’s reaction would suggest that the perception of the minutes was a relatively dovish one,” Jingyi Pan, market strategist at IG in Singapore, wrote in a note. “This is in comparison to hawkish expectations following Fed chair Janet Yellen’s address last week.”

“Indeed, the discussion on fiscal policy did suggest that a portion of Fed members believe that the uncertainty could put the Fed off course for an early hike,” she added.

The dollar also took heart earlier from comments by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin who praised the currency’s strength as a reflection of confidence in the economy, and a “good thing” in the long run.

But that effect, too, wore off as the Asian day progressed, as he had already expressed such views before, said Masashi Murata, senior currency strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman in Tokyo.

“We have to remember Mnuchin was referring to the dollar’s long-term prospects, and that he did suggest before that too strong of a dollar could have negative effects in the short-term,” Murata said.

The dollar index, which tracks the greenback against a basket of trade-weighted peers, inched up 0.1 percent to 101.33.

The dollar stood at 113.24 yen , just 0.1 percent firmer, having lost some of its early bounce following Wednesday’s 0.7 percent tumble.

U.S. 10-year Treasury yields slipped to 2.4148 percent on Thursday from 2.418 percent at Wednesday’s close. They touched a near-two-week low of 2.391 on Wednesday.

The euro was steady at $1.05625. On Wednesday, it fell below $1.05 for the first time in six weeks on concern anti-European Union candidate Marine Le Pen could win France’s presidential election in May.

Those political worries abated somewhat after veteran centrist Francois Bayrou offered an alliance that could boost independent candidate Emmanuel Macron in the election.

In commodities, oil prices gained following American Petroleum Institute data showing a surprise drop in U.S. crude stocks last week. Official data from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration is expected on Thursday.

U.S. crude added 0.8 percent to $54.04.

Global benchmark Brent crude also rose 0.8 percent to $56.30.

Reporting by Nichola Saminather; Additional reporting by Shinichi Saoshiro; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Richard Borsuk

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