Asia shares shackled by trade tensions, dollar stays firm

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SYDNEY (Reuters) – Asian shares were subdued on Thursday ahead of anxiously-awaited Sino-U.S. trade talks, while the U.S. dollar consolidated recent bumper gains after the Federal Reserve reaffirmed the outlook for more rate hikes this year.

People walk past an electronic board showing Japan’s Nikkei average outside a brokerage in Tokyo, Japan, March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Reports the Trump administration is considering executive action to restrict some Chinese companies’ ability to sell telecoms equipment in the United States could unsettle investors.

Talks between U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He are due to kick off later on Thursday, but a breakthrough deal is viewed as highly unlikely.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was all but flat, while South Korean stocks eased 0.31 percent.

Japan’s Nikkei was closed for a holiday, while E-Mini futures for the S&P 500 barely budged.

Wall Street had wobbled on Wednesday as potential U.S. restrictions on Chinese telecom companies reinforced investor concerns about worsening trade relations.

The Dow ended down 0.72 percent, while the S&P 500 also lost 0.72 percent and the Nasdaq 0.42 percent.

The Fed policy meeting ended with no change as expected while the central bank expressed confidence a recent rise in inflation to near target would be sustained, leaving it on track to raise borrowing costs in June.

“The statement carried only modest changes in wording, but they were meaningful nonetheless, highlighting that the Fed is optimistic on the outlook and intent on continuing to raise rates at a gradual pace,” said Westpac analyst Elliot Clarke.

Yet the Fed also emphasized the inflation target was “symmetric”, suggesting it was not inclined to speed up its tightening plans.

“The Fed sees little reason to be concerned with inflation marginally above its 2.0 percent target, particularly after such a long period of underperformance.”

Westpac, like the market, expects two more hikes this year.

The statement was not quite as hawkish as some had wagered on and caused a dip in the dollar, but the move was brief as rates were still clearly heading higher while those in Europe and Japan lagged far behind.

The euro was the biggest loser dropping to a 15-week trough at $1.1936. It was last pinned at $1.1950 and threatening the low for the year so far at $1.1915.

The dollar also scored a three-month peak on the yen at 110.05, before edging back to 109.82. Against a basket of currencies, the dollar index touched the highest since late December at 92.834 and was last at 92.742.

In the Treasury market, yields dipped slightly as a quarterly refunding program of $73 billion came in short of expectations, reducing the pressure on prices from the torrent of supply.

Oil prices slipped with the market cautious ahead of the May 12 deadline for the U.S. to ratify the Iran nuclear deal.

Reuters reported President Donald Trump has all but decided to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord but exactly how he will do so remains unclear.

Brent crude futures fell 34 cents to $73.00 a barrel, while U.S. crude dropped 33 cents to $67.60. [O/R]

Editing by Shri Navaratnam

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