Asia shares up; China, Ukraine fears limit gains

Reuters

By Shinichi Saoshiro

TOKYO (Reuters) - Asian shares advanced moderately on Monday, choosing to embrace last week's firm performance by global equity markets while remaining fairly sanguine over the Crimea crisis and China's slowing growth.

European shares, though, were set for a lower start, with financial spreadbetter London Capital Group expecting Britain's FTSE 100 to open -34 points, or -0.5 percent; Germany's DAX to open -47 points, or -0.5 percent; and France's CAC 40 to open -38 points, or -0.8 percent.

Asian shares took an early knock after the China HSBC flash manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) fell to an eight-month low in March, the latest in a string of indicators pointing to a loss of momentum in China's economy.

But MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan still managed to add 0.9 percent and Japan's Nikkei share average gained 1.8 percent, after solid performances on Wall Street last week, with the Dow and S&P 500 posting weekly gains of 1.5 percent and 1.4 percent.

European shares also recorded their biggest weekly gain in a month last week.

"Shares are up in Asia on follow-through support from last week, with the markets choosing to focus on the positive factors for now," said Mitul Kotecha, Credit Agricole's Hong Kong-based head of global markets research for Asia.

But Kotecha added that whether this positive tone persists will depend on developments this week in the geopolitical arena.

The preliminary HSBC China PMI reading of 48.1 fell from February's final reading of 48.5, while the "flash" March index also showed new orders slid for a fourth consecutive month to 46.9 -- the lowest point since July 2013, while output fell to 47.3, the lowest since September 2012.

Expectations that Beijing will have to unveil stimulus measures buoyed shares in Hong Kong and China. The Hang Seng index gained 1.7 percent and the Shanghai Composite Index was up 1.2 percent.

"Usually, for the month of March, the PMI will rebound, because after Chinese New Year there should be some activity coming back, but this PMI is disappointing," said Wei Yao, China economist at Societe Generale in Hong Kong. "The government will probably have to provide some supporting measures."

Overall, appetite for risk remained somewhat suppressed as geopolitical tensions continued to simmer after NATO's top military commander said on Sunday that Russia had built up a "very sizeable" force on its border with Ukraine, and Moscow may have a region in another ex-Soviet republic, Moldova, in its sights after annexing Crimea.

The euro edged away from a recent low hit against the dollar as traders continued to recalibrate expectations around U.S. monetary policy after Fed Chair Janet Yellen last week raised the prospect of an earlier start to interest rate hikes.

It was $1.3805 after hitting a two-week low of $1.3749 on Thursday.

Investors snapped up the greenback last week as they swiftly brought forward the risk of a U.S. interest rate hike early in 2015 after Yellen surprised markets by raising the prospect of such a move.

The dollar rose 0.2 percent to 102.44 yen, with the Japanese currency drawing underlying support from safe-haven bids as investors continued to brood over the crisis in Ukraine.

Currency markets were also keeping an eye on emergency talks between leaders of the Group of Seven leading nations scheduled to take place later in the session at The Hague, where the G7 will probably discuss how to put further pressure on Russia and at what potential cost.

Three-month copper on the London Metal Exchange fell 0.5 percent to $6,447.00 a tonne in the wake of the China data, erasing small gains from the previous session.

Spot gold dipped to $1,327.26 an ounce, still dazed from a sharp fall triggered by Yellen's comments last Wednesday. Russia's assurance last week that it had no plans to invade other parts of Ukraine has also taken some of the shine off gold.

Crude oil held some distance above last week's low as fresh U.S. and European sanctions on Russia renewed fears of a supply disruption from the world's second largest oil producer.

Brent crude traded at $106.71 a barrel with supply disruption worries keeping it off a six-week trough of $105.41 hit on Thursday.

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