Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York, the US. Picture: REUTERS
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York, the US. Picture: REUTERS

Sydney — Asian stocks nudged higher on Thursday after see-sawing through a subdued session on concern over China’s economic outlook, while an anti-climactic end to the latest chapter in the Brexit saga offered the pound a moment’s peace.

Fresh news was thin on the ground leaving MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan up a slight 0.2%. Japan’s Nikkei was almost flat after dithering in both directions.

Spread-betters pointed to a softer start for the major European bourses, while e-mini futures for the S&P 500 drifted down 0.26%.

China’s blue-chip index recouped early losses to gain 0.4%. It had been weighed by a fall in the country’s second largest home appliances maker, Gree Electric, after it warned of slower profit growth as the economy loses steam.

China’s Premier Li Keqiang took to the radio to promise increased government investment this year. The country’s central bank did its part by injecting more cash into the financial system, bringing the amount for the week to a massive 1.14-trillion yuan ($168.74bn).

Stoking some caution was news that a bipartisan group of US legislators introduced bills on Wednesday that would ban the sale of US chips or other components to Huawei Technologies or other Chinese telecommunications companies that violate US sanctions or export control laws.

That came shortly before the Wall Street Journal reported federal prosecutors were investigating allegations that Huawei stole trade secrets from US businesses.

Such moves could inflame tensions between Beijing and Washington and make a trade deal yet harder.

Separately, Handelsblatt reported the German government is actively considering stricter security requirements and other ways to exclude Huawei from a build-out of fifth-generation (5G) mobile networks.

Also lurking in the background were worries the US government shutdown was starting to take a toll on its economy.

White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett said the shutdown would shave 0.13% off quarterly economic growth for each week it goes on.

Plan B

As expected, British Prime Minister Theresa May narrowly won a confidence vote overnight and invited other party leaders for talks to try to break the impasse on a Brexit divorce deal.

An outline for plan “B” is due by Monday and the market assumes there will have to be an extension of the Article 50 exit date past March 29.

“Nothing has happened in the last 24 hours to dissuade us from the view that we are headed in the direction of an Article 50 delay, a softer Brexit or no Brexit,” said Ray Attrill, head of forex strategy at NAB.

“But it remains too soon to be buying sterling with your ears pinned back,” he added, noting many uncertainties remained.

All of which left the pound steady at $1.2872, though still short of Monday’s peak at $1.2929. It fared well on the euro, which hit a seven-week low before steadying at 88.42p.

The dollar was otherwise mixed, easing a touch on the yen to ¥108.98, but firming on the euro to $1.1386. The dollar index was up a fraction at 96.162.

In commodity markets, palladium hit record highs thanks to increasing demand and lower supply of the metal used in auto catalysts. Spot gold was little changed at $1,294.91/oz.

Oil prices eased as traders worried about the strength of demand in the US after petrol stockpiles there grew last week by far more than analysts had expected.

US crude futures fell 30c to $52.01 a barrel, while Brent slipped 28c to $61.04.