The headquarters of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in Beijing, China. Picture: REUTERS
The headquarters of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in Beijing, China. Picture: REUTERS

Tokyo — Asian shares slipped on Thursday after losses on Wall Street but trade was subdued as investors awaited business surveys in Europe and largely stayed on the sidelines ahead of the long Easter weekend holiday.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan lost 0.2%, reversing course after brushing its highest since late July 2018 early in the trading session.

Australian shares held steady while Japan’s Nikkei was down nearly half a percent and Chinese blue chips dipped 0.3%.

Wall Street shares drifted lower on Wednesday, with the S&P 500 giving up 0.2% as a drop in health care equities outweighed upbeat economic data from the US and China.

The US trade deficit fell to an eight-month low in February as imports from China plunged, data on Wednesday showed.

Separate figures from China earlier in the day showed the world’s second-largest economy grew at a steady 6.4% pace in the first quarter, defying forecasts for a slowdown. Attention is now turning to how much more stimulus Beijing will apply without triggering more financial risks.

“We’re in this kind of hiatus in the global economy,” said Chris Weston, head of research at foreign exchange brokerage Pepperstone in Melbourne.

“People are starting to believe that we’re going to see better times in the second quarter and probably into the third quarter as well, and that perhaps the first quarter has been that trough.”

Investors’ immediate focus turned to the release of Purchasing Managers Indexes (PMIs) for the manufacturing and service sectors in Europe later on Thursday to provide more clues on the strength of the eurozone economy.

“It’s going to be interesting to see if we see some stabilisation there in line with what we’ve been seeing in the stabilisation in the Chinese data flow,” said Weston.

Japanese manufacturing activity contracted at a slightly slower pace in April thanks to a pick-up in hiring, a flash PMI showed, but new export orders fell at the fastest pace in almost three years in a sign slow global demand remains a major pressure point for the economy.

Yen near 2019 low

Market participants are also eyeing signs of progress in US-China trade negotiations.

Washington and Beijing set a tentative timeline for a fresh round of face-to-face meetings ahead of a possible signing ceremony in late May or early June, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Attorney-general William Barr is set to hold a news conference at 1.30pm GMT to discuss the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential race.

“The lack of love for the yen, I suppose, is just telling us that people aren’t seeing this as a general risk event,” said Pepperstone’s Weston.

“It’s probably worth keeping a beady eye in case something really does come out that shocks market into life.”

In the currency market, the safe-haven yen was slightly up at 111.94 yen per dollar, but well within reach of a near four-month low of 112.17 brushed overnight.

The euro ticked up to $1.1294, adding to the previous day’s gain of 0.1% after investors bought the single currency on the back of the positive Chinese data.

“A recovering Chinese economy is also good news for the German economy, and thus positive for the euro,” said Junichi Ishikawa, senior FX strategist at IG Securities in Tokyo.

“The ongoing surge in bund yields amid ’risk on’ is a key factor supporting the euro,” he added.

The 10-year German bund yield hit a one-month high of 0.102% overnight, in a sharp rebound from a two-and-a-half-year low of -0.094% set late in March.

The Australian dollar held steady at $0.7178 as traders bet Australia’s central bank will not rush to ease rates after a rise in new jobs underlined strength in the country’s labour market.

The dollar index held steady at 97.033 after ending the previous session basically unchanged.

In commodity markets, oil prices were slightly lower as US government data overnight showed inventories drew down less than an industry report had suggested on Tuesday.

US crude was last down 8 cents at $63.67 a barrel, while global benchmark Brent crude futures dipped 20 cents to $71.42.

Spot gold was last down 0.15% at $1,272.30/oz after briefly touching a new low for the year.