Shares subdued as Spain auction puts investors on edge

Friday, 13 January 2012 01:04 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

TOKYO (Reuters): Asian shares were subdued and the euro hovered near a 16-month low on Thursday as worries about euro zone sovereign funding kept investors risk-averse ahead of a Spanish debt sale that is seen as a key test of confidence.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia Pacific shares outside Japan was up 0.1 percent, briefly touching a one-month high earlier. The index has risen about 3 percent this year.

Japan’s Nikkei average opened down 0.3 percent.

The euro was up 0.1 percent at $1.2720, having fallen to a fresh 16-month low of $1.2661 on Wednesday, which lifted the dollar index measured against six key currencies, up to a 16-month peak of 81.493.

Comments from Fitch about the risk of the euro’s collapse and bankers expressing a grim view over the Greek bailout on Wednesday heightened investor caution about the course of the debt crisis.

Spain on Thursday will sell up to 5 billion euros of 2015 and 2016 paper, just hours before the ECB’s decision. Italy offers up to 4.75 billion euros of five-year bonds on Friday.

“We see testing times ahead for the market, with uncertainty reverting higher, European currencies remaining under pressure,” and safe haven assets such as the U.S. dollar getting fresh support, said analysts at Barclays capital in a research note.

The head of Fitch’s sovereign ratings urged the European Central Bank to beef up its buying of euro zone debt to support Italy and prevent the euro’s collapse.

The ECB holds its policy meeting later on Thursday, and is expected to hold rates steady at a record-low 1 percent while pressing governments to strengthen their efforts on the crisis.

Talks about private sector participation in a Greek bailout are going badly, senior euro zone bankers said on Wednesday, raising the prospect that European Union governments will have to increase their contribution.

While the ECB’s unprecedented funding operations since late last year have somewhat eased tension in the money markets, banks remain reluctant to buy bonds issued by troubled euro zone countries, keeping the borrowing costs extremely expensive and further burdening those already struggling with high debts.

Instead of seeking returns from lending, banks opted for safety, parking the funds at the ECB. Data on Wednesday showed commercial banks’ overnight deposits at the ECB hit an all-time high for the fourth session running.

Other safe havens rose on Wednesday, with U.S. Treasuries prices briefly extending gains after the government auctioned 10-year notes at a record low yield.

Gold was steady on Thursday, staying near a one-month high of $1,646.90 an ounce hit the day before, when sentiment was boosted by improved demand in India as the rupee rose against the dollar, and Chinese imports rose sharply.

U.S. stocks held near five-month highs on Wednesday, staying detached from global markets as firmer U.S. economic data raised hopes for better corporate earnings.

In Asia, data from China is key to measuring the extent of damage from the euro zone problems. Investors will seek clues on policy direction from Chinese annual inflation due later on Thursday. Inflation in the world’s second largest economy is expected to slow to 4.0 percent in December from 4.2 percent.

Sentiment was slightly better in Asian credit markets, with spreads on the iTraxx Asia ex-Japan investment grade index shrinking by two basis points early on Thursday.