Asian shares flat as UK vote, ECB meeting loom

Asian stocks benchmarks were fairly steady Thursday as investors parsed economic data and awaited market-moving events in Europe, including Britain's general election and a European Central Bank meeting.

KEEPING SCORE: Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 index was practically unchanged at 19,986.98 and South Korea's Kospi lost 0.3 percent to 2,353.23. Hong Kong's Hang Seng rose 0.2 percent to 26,028.25 and the Shanghai Composite index in mainland China rose 0.1 percent to 3,144.81. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 inched up 0.1 percent to 5,674.30.

DATA DUMP: Japan released revised first-quarter data that showed Asia's second-largest economy expanded an annualized 1 percent, a significant drop from last month's initial 2.2 percent estimate, according to Kyodo News. The downgrade was based mainly on a drop in crude oil inventories. China trade figures, meanwhile, showed that export and import growth accelerated last month.

BRITAIN VOTES: Political risk is rising to the top of investors' minds as voters prepare to go to the polls for Britain's general election. The race looks to be tighter than expected as the Conservatives' lead over Labour narrowed sharply in recent weeks. An unexpected outcome could play havoc with global markets and the pound.

ECB MEETS: Investors will be keeping an eye on the European Central Bank's meeting and news conference later in the day, where policymakers are expected to sketch out their latest plans for the bank's bond-buying stimulus program. ECB chief Mario Draghi told a parliamentary hearing recently that the 19-nation eurozone's economy is improving but it still needs heavy stimulus.

QUOTEWORTHY: "Asian markets are still expected to idle in this trend of mixed performances ahead of the key events," said Jingyi Pan, market strategist at IG. The release of prepared testimony by fired FBI Director James Comey ahead of his appearance before the Senate has reduced some risk to markets, she said. "However, as one half of the equation in raising global growth outlook, European markets' performance post the ECB meeting and UK election could still have an impact on emerging Asian markets."

WALL STREET: Major U.S. benchmarks eked out small gains. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 0.2 percent to close at 2,433.14. The Dow Jones industrial average gained 0.2 percent to 21,173.69. The Nasdaq composite index added 0.4 percent to 6,297.38.

ENERGY: Oil futures stabilized after slumping on unexpected news that U.S. crude stockpiles grew 3.3 million barrels last week. Benchmark U.S. crude rose 26 cents to $45.98 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract slid $2.47, or 5.1 percent, to close at $45.72 per barrel on Wednesday. Brent crude, used to price international oils, rose 33 cents to $48.39 per barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar rose to 109.90 yen from 109.83 in late trade Wednesday. The euro strengthened to 1.255 from $1.1262.