Asian stocks fall on uncertainty over European Central Bank meeting

HONG KONG - Most major Asian stock benchmarks weakened Wednesday as investor waited to see what steps policymakers would take to help revive flagging growth during a European Central Bank.

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KEEPING SCORE: Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 index lost 1.3 per cent to 16,557.48 while South Korea's Kospi dipped 0.1 per cent to 1,944.06. Hong Kong's Hang Seng shed 0.7 per cent to 19,872.51 and the Shanghai Composite Index in mainland China retreated 2.9 per cent to 2,817.21. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 gained 0.3 per cent to 5,121.90, while markets in Southeast Asia were mixed.

ECB IN FOCUS: Investor attention is zeroed on the European Central Bank's policy meeting on Thursday. Many analysts expect the bank to open the stimulus taps further based on hints from ECB chief Mario Draghi and economic data that showed inflation across the 19-country eurozone has slipped under zero. While it's unclear just what moves the bank will take, they could include sending deposit rates further into negative territory or stepping up a bond buying program. The most likely scenario is a cut to deposit rates, which could give banks an incentive to lend more.

QUOTEWORTHY: "Tomorrow's ECB meeting also gives traders a reason to be cautious," said Ric Spooner, chief market analyst at CMC Markets. "Markets are expecting significant action from the ECB. Many see this as ECB's last chance to provide a stimulus shock," he said, describing the bank's actions as a potential source of market volatility.

CHINA CONCERN: Lingering worries over China are darkening sentiment. Data released Tuesday showed that exports in the world's No. 2 economy slid 25 per cent last month from a year earlier, as weak global demand and the Lunar New Year holiday shutdowns took their toll. Imports also skidded 14 per cent lower.

WALL STREET: Major U.S. benchmarks closed lower, with the Dow Jones industrial average down 0.6 per cent to close at 16,964.10 and the S&P 500 falling 1.1 per cent to 1,979.26. The Nasdaq composite gave up 1.3 per cent to 4,648.82.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude rise 4 cents to $36.54 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell $1.40 to settle at $36.50 a barrel on Tuesday. Brent crude, which is used to price international oils, dipped 10 cents to $39.55 a barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar slipped to 112.63 yen from 112.58 yen. The euro weakened to $1.0972 from $1.0998.


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