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Asia shares sluggish, China policy puzzles

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[February 26, 2014]  By Wayne Cole

SYDNEY (Reuters)  Asian share markets struggled to scrape together some gains on Wednesday following a flat finish on Wall Street and as concerns over opaque policy moves in China kept investors on edge amid a drought of major economic data.

Chinese share markets and the yuan stabilized after sharp falls on Tuesday, with Shanghai adding 0.1 percent <.SSEC>. MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan <.MIAPJ0000PUS> crept ahead by 0.28 percent, while south Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines were all fractionally firmer.

In Tokyo, the Nikkei 225 <.225> pared early losses to be off 0.2 percent, which follows a 1.4 percent gain on Tuesday.

"For the rest of the week, the Nikkei may see directionless trade and a lack of volume because investors need more catalysts to take positions," said Masashi Oda, chief investment officer at Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank.

Panasonic Corp <6752.T> broke from the pack and jumped 5 percent on reports the firm was inviting several Japanese suppliers to join it in investing in a U.S. car battery plant it plans to build with Tesla Motor Inc TSLA.O. [ID:nL3N0LU4IV]

Economic data from the United States had been too mixed to offer any lead. A closely watched housing survey showed home prices rose slightly more than expected in December, though February consumer confidence fell short of expectations.

The cautious tone in markets was also warranted ahead of testimony from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen slated for Thursday, where she is bound to draw questions on the recent spate of soft U.S. economic news and what it might mean for policy.

The Dow <.DJI> ended Tuesday 0.17 percent lower, while the S&P 500 <.SPX> lost 0.13 percent a day after touching a record high.

Yields on 10-year U.S. Treasury notes were steady at 2.71 percent after dipping about 4 basis points overnight, leaving them roughly in the middle of the recent 2.57 to 2.79 percent trading range.

Gold edged back to $1,340.00 an ounce and away from a four-month top at $1,343.40.

In currencies, dealers reported scant activity ahead of the month end and a slate of major global data next week. The dollar inched up on the yen to 102.33, but could make no headway on the euro at $1.3742.

The single currency has been corralled in a $1.3685-$1.3773 range for the past six sessions.

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After falling sharply on Tuesday, China's yuan was looking more stable so far on Wednesday. It was quoted at 6.1283 per dollar, little changed from Tuesday's close.

Dealers suspect the People's Bank of China has engineered the recent decline in its currency to inject more two-way volatility into the market and wrong foot speculators that had amassed huge positions wagering on its continued rise.

The Chinese currency has been a favorite among emerging market currencies in 2013, gaining nearly 3 percent even as most of its peers depreciated against the dollar. Most analysts expect it to appreciate another 2-3 percent this year, but the change in direction has rattled confidence.

Some analysts believe the PBOC may be preparing the markets for more reforms.

"Putting such a warning shot over the bows of the FX community could also be seen as a sensible move ahead of any possible widening of the CNY's trading band," said Patrick Perret-Green, an analysts at Australia New Zealand Bank.

ANZ believes the band will be widened to 2 percent from the current 1 percent within the next couple of months, a move toward liberalization that should be seen as a positive step.

Yet he also cautioned that the weakness was not confined to the yuan and equities. Prices for copper and steel had fallen sharply while money markets rates were broadly lower, a risk-off shift that suggested growing worries about the economy.

"So far, the reaction of other global markets has been remarkably relaxed, if not perverse. It is questionable how long this can persist."

In oil markets, Brent crude eased 15 cents to $109.36 a barrel, while U.S. oil lost 21 cents to
$101.62. <O/R>

(Editing by Shri Navaratnam)

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