Asia shares steady but capped before EU summit

By Chikako Mogi

Financial spreadbetters expected Britain's FTSE 100 <.FTSE> to open down as much as 0.3 percent. Futures for the Euro STOXX 50, Germany's DAX and the French CAC 40 were each down 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent.

Assets perceived as safe-haven such as gold and the yen firmed, and the euro steadied, but growing financial strains dampened Asian credit markets.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia Pacific shares outside Japan fell as much as 0.9 percent earlier on Wednesday before steadying. The index hit its highest level since September 16 on Tuesday, rising about 16 percent from its lows hit on October 4.

The FTSEurofirst 300 <.FTEU3> index of top European shares also climbed 16 percent since hitting its lows in late September.

"Sentiment has not turned to risk-on from risk-off despite recent gains, with investors now eyeing whether Europe can actually deliver its comprehensive package," said Hirokazu Yuihama, senior strategist at Daiwa Capital Markets.

"Until investors are convinced that the sovereign debt crisis is shunned from contagion, money is unlikely to return to the markets fully," he said. "This uncertainty prompts profit taking from the recovery in stock markets which began in late September in Europe and early October in Asia."

The EU summit remains scheduled for Wednesday but the gathering of finance ministers -- known as Ecofin -- was canceled because details of the meeting had not been finalized, sources told Reuters.

The leaders were expected to adopt a plan to reduce Greece's debt burden, recapitalize European banks to help absorb bond losses and strengthen the euro zone rescue fund, or the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), to stave off contagion in the bond market.

But there were divisions over the extent of losses that private holders of Greek bonds would have to incur and the size of a planned bank recapitalization, and the scope for leveraging the bailout fund remained uncertain.


The Nikkei <.N225> erased steep morning losses to end marginally lower, capped by the yen's rise to a record high against the dollar of 75.73 yen on Tuesday, which fueled concerns about its damage to corporate earnings. <.T>

The euro retreated from a six-week high of $1.3959, but the drop has been relatively shallow, with the single currency ticking up 0.1 percent to $1.3922 after finding initial support at the overnight low of $1.3847.

"Since little is now expected out of today's summit, the market impact should be limited," analysts at BNP Paribas wrote in a note. "In fact, given the recent price action and market reaction to mere speculation, a sheer commitment from policymakers may be enough to ignite a fresh risk rally. $1.4000 before the weekend remains viable."

The Australian dollar dropped half a cent as a tame consumer price data cleared the way for a cut in interest rates as early as next week.

Australia has kept rates at the highest in the developed world for almost a year, as it worried about inflationary pressures amid a once-in-a-century mining boom.

The move may lend some support as Australia joins a number of countries seeing inflationary pressures falling under control, when concerns mount about a global slowdown on top of the euro zone risks.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong said its exports fell 3 percent in September, the first year-on-year contraction in almost two year and a Reuters poll at China's largest trade event showed the impact of Europe's deepening debt crisis and a stalling U.S. economy weighed on demand for Asian exports.

"These data will raise concerns about corporate earnings. As Europe makes progress in providing a direction to solving its debt crisis, market focus will gradually shift to fundamentals and earnings forecasts," Yuihama said.

Losses in property names weighed on Hong Kong shares <.HSI> but were offset overall by the strength in Chinese stocks, with many market watchers expecting China to soon loosen its policy due to slowing economic growth in the world's second-largest economy and hope that inflation has peaked.

"Most are staying put at this point because short-term investors are wary of chasing the market beyond current levels and long-term investors are waiting for lower levels and a clear macro picture before re-entering," said Alex Wong, director of asset management at Ample Finance Group.


Spot gold rose 1 percent to its highest level in more than a month of $1,717.29 an ounce on Wednesday. It has been moving in tandem with riskier assets, but resumed its safety allure as stocks and the euro fell, posting its biggest one-day rise since early September on Tuesday.

The yield on 10-year cash Japanese government bonds fell 2 basis points to 0.995 percent.

As strains returned, the spreads on the iTraxx Asia ex-Japan investment grade index, a gauge for whether investor risk appetite is returning, widened by seven points.

"But the street is lightly positioned and inflows have turned positive, so unless equities dive I don't see credit capitulating."

Some issuers have tapped the region to raise funds in recent weeks, with the latest from Fortescue Metals Group <FMG.AX>, which on Wednesday said it had raised $1.5 billion of senior unsecured notes to help fund its infrastructure expansion.

The offering was upsized to $1.5 billion from $1 billion due to strong demand, Australia's No. 3 iron ore producer said.

Signs of slower growth in China and India, and developed countries as well as turbulent European markets, are prompting cash-rich Japanese retail investors to steadily diversify their emerging-markets exposure to ASEAN nations.

Japanese investors pulled out an estimated $366 million from stock funds dedicated to popular India, China and Brazil in September, but invested $624 million last month in global emerging market equity funds, or about a tenth of the total assets of such funds, data from fund tracker Lipper showed.

(Additional reporting by Ian Chua in Sydney, Umesh Desai and Clement Tan in Hong Kong; Editing by Kavita Chandran)