Asian Markets Extend U.S. Advance, Strike Two-Week Highs


Asian shares raced to two-week highs on Wednesday, with investor confidence getting a much-needed boost from upbeat U.S. data and diminishing concerns over the Ukraine/Crimea crisis.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan .MIAPJ0000PUS rose 1.1 percent to its highest level since March 11, while Japan's Nikkei .N225 ticked up 0.3 percent.

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European shares are expected to follow suit, with both Germany's DAX .GDAX and France's CAC .FCHI seen rising 0.4 percent.

U.S. consumer confidence rose more than expected in March, to its highest level since January 2008 and U.S. house prices increased solidly in January.

The two reports were the latest in a string of positive reads on the U.S. economy, adding more credence to the view that softness earlier this year was related to bad weather and not inherent economic weakness.

The upbeat data helped Wall Street shares rebound after a two-day decline, with the Standard & Poor's 500 Index .SPX gaining 0.4 percent.

Risk appetite also got a lift from perceptions that geopolitical tensions over Ukraine are easing after a meeting of Western leaders ended with little more than fist-shaking at Russia. U.S. President Barack Obama and his allies agreed to hold off on more damaging economic sanctions unless Moscow goes beyond the seizure of Crimea.

The news that Moscow's and Kiev's foreign ministers had held an impromptu first meeting also led investors to believe the crisis triggered by Russia's annexation of Crimea is not heading into a wider armed conflict.

"The markets were worried that Russia might invade the southern or eastern part of Ukraine after Crimea. But the chances of that happening seems to be slim now, reducing investors' risk aversion," said Kyosuke Suzuki, director of forex at Societe Generale.

Investor relief was palpable in Russia, where the ruble firmed to pre-Crimea crisis levels. The ruble rose about 1.5 percent on Tuesday against the dollar-euro basket, its biggest gain in 1-1/2 years, to 41.68 to the basket, hitting a one-month high.

The MSCI emerging equities index .MSCIEF also rose to a two-week high, with Brazilian shares .BVSP tapping five-week highs despite a downgrade of Brazil's credit rating by U.S. rating firm Standard & Poor's.

Indian shares .BSESN hit a record high and the rupee also rose to an eight-month high on hopes of more foreign investment inflows.

Hopes that Beijing will take steps to bolster its sagging economy underpinned Chinese shares and many markets leveraged to the Asian giant. Brazil and Australia were among the beneficiaries, as well as a host of commodities.

Following a recent run of disappointing Chinese data this year, many economists now expect China's growth to fall short of the government's target of 7.5 percent this year in the absence of effective support measures.

"Investors are betting on stimulus because Chinese authorities have done everything they could to achieve the target in the past," said Sho Aoyama, senior market analyst at Mizuho Securities.

Mainland Chinese shares .SSEC dipped slightly but still held not far from one-month high, even as rumor of insolvency led to a run on small banks amid growing anxiety about potential insolvencies in China as regulators signal greater tolerance for credit defaults.

London copper futures rose to a two-week high of $6,623.75 per tonne on Tuesday, while commodities that had been battered earlier this month -- including iron ore and steel -- also rebounded from their lows.

The Australian dollar hit four-month high of $0.9200. Other major currencies were stuck in well-worn ranges, with the euro fetching $1.3816 and the yen changing hands at 102.32 yen to the dollar.

Meanwhile, precious metals lost some of their allure as concerns over Ukraine eased and as U.S. short-term rates have risen.

Gold hit a five-week low of $1,305.59 per ounce on Tuesday and last stood at $1,313.20 while silver dropped to seven-week low of $19.78 per ounce.

(Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Eric Meijer)