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Asian shares ease on economy worries, China data eyed

TOKYO (Reuters) – Asian shares edged down on Friday, with sentiment burdened by worries over the economic fallout from Italy’s political stalemate, the likelihood of U.S. “sequestration” spending cuts, and caution ahead of China’s manufacturing data.

But renewed confidence that major central banks will keep taking stimulative steps to support their economies, which lifted a global equities index overnight, underpinned prices.

A drop in new U.S. claims for jobless benefits last week and a sharp rise in factory activity in the Midwest in February suggested the U.S. economy is improving.

Investors will closely monitor China’s manufacturing index as the world’s second-largest economy, while bottoming out late last year, has recently shown patchy economic reports. Disillusionment over its growth prospects could prompt investors to take profits again from the broad market rallies since the start of 2013.

“There will be some nerves about a weaker headline given the sharp slide in the ‘flash’ reading on the HSBC (LSE: HSBA.L – news) /Markit PMI, to 50.6 from 52.3. A weak official PMI headline would still hurt AUD and Asian currencies,” said Sean Callow, a senior currency strategist at Westpac, in a note.

The MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan eased 0.2 percent, after ending February up 0.5 percent.

Australian shares slipped 0.6 percent, pulling back from 4-1/2 year highs touched in the previous session, as big miners lost ground on lower metal prices and investors’ expectations that China’s February official purchasing managers’ index (PMI) will edge lower.

South Korean markets are closed on Friday for a public holiday. Japan’s Nikkei stock average opened down 0.8 percent.

There is wariness about the possible extent of economic damage from automatic across-the-board “sequestration” spending cuts in the United States. The International Monetary Fund said on Thursday it would likely cut its 2013 growth forecasts for the United States by at least a 0.5 percentage point if the cuts are fully implemented. The IMF now projects that the U.S. economy will grow 2 percent this year.

U.S. crude was down 0.2 percent to $91.87 a barrel, off a two-month low of $91.57 hit the day before.

On Thursday, Brent crude fell to a six-week low to cap a month-end sell-off in which prices have fallen by almost $8 in two weeks as concerns have resurfaced about the global economy and the strength of demand.

Spot gold fell more than 1 percent and ended February with its fifth straight monthly drop, the longest string of monthly declines since 1996. Spot gold was steady around $1,580.54 early on Friday.

The euro was also steady at $1.3061, but near a seven-week trough of $1.3018 plumbed earlier in the week.

The yen eased 0.1 percent to 92.59 against the dollar.

(Editing by Eric Meijer)

Source: Reuters

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