Asian Shares Ease On Economy Worries, China Data Eyed

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Asian shares edged down on Friday, with manufacturing data from China that broadly met expectations helping to somewhat taper sentiment burdened by worries over the economic fallout from Italy's political confusion and likely U.S. spending cuts.

* MSCI Asia ex-Japan down 0.2 pct, Nikkei trims earlier losses

* Euro hovers near 7-week lows vs dollar

* China manufacturing data broadly within expectations

Asian shares edged down on Friday, with manufacturing data from China that broadly met expectations helping to somewhat taper sentiment burdened by worries over the economic fallout from Italy's political confusion and likely U.S. spending cuts.

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

China's February official purchasing managers' index (PMI) came in at its slowest pace in four months at 50.1, slightly below a 50.2 Reuters poll consensus and the 50.4 posted in January, but broadly within expectations.

A private survey showed the final HSBC PMI fell to 50.4 after seasonal adjustments from January's two-year high of 52.3, in line with a flash reading in late February, supporting expectations that China's modest economic revival requires no change in monetary policy for now.

"The above-50 reading of the PMI still indicates that the economy is on an expansion mode. In our view, even though headwinds remain, China's GDP growth will still likely come in around 8 percent in Q1, supported by faster investment growth in western and central Chinese provinces due to the renewed urbanisation drive," economists at ANZ said 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, showing muted reaction to Chinese data.

Australian shares slipped 0.5 percent, pulling back from 4-1/2-year highs touched in the previous session, as big miners lost ground on lower metal prices. South Korean markets are closed on Friday for a public holiday.

The Australian dollar, which is sensitive to data from China, Australia's largest trading partner, was steady around $1.0213.

Japan's Nikkei stock average eased 0.2 percent, trimming some of earlier losses as expectations for strong reflationary measures from the Bank of Japan in coming months lent support.

Data on Friday showed Japanese companies cut spending on plant and equipment in October-December by 8.7 percent from the same period last year, down for the first time in five quarters amid a slump in exports, showing the world's third-largest economy was still struggling to find a solid footing.

In contrast, 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.

The relative outperformance of the world's leading economy over Japan's may soon turn the Japan-based yen selling into U.S.-led dollar buying, giving a fresh push higher in the dollar/yen, traders say.

The dollar was steady around 92.56 against the yen.

One factor that could cloud such a positive outlook is the uncertainty over 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.

"Financial markets are eerily calm about the issue. Nobody is talking about the sequestration, and I worry about the seeming lack of interest when market sentiment is far from stable after sharp swings following the Italian election," said Hiroshi Maeba, head of FX trading Japan at UBS in Tokyo. He said reaction, if any, will likely come in equities and bonds first and spill over to forex, hitting risk-sensitive currencies which may possibly underpin the dollar.

U.S. crude fell 0.4 percent to $91.69 a barrel, after earlier hitting a 2013 low of $91.43.

Brent crude fell 0.2 percent to $111.13 after falling to a six-week low of $110.86 earlier. Oil prices were weighed by concerns about the global economy and the strength of demand.

Spot gold inched up 0.1 percent to $1,581.71 an ounce after dropping more than 1 percent on Thursday and ending February with its fifth straight monthly drop, the longest string of monthly declines since 1996.

The euro was up 0.1 percent to $1.3070, but near a seven-week trough of $1.3018 plumbed earlier in the week.

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