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Asia: Stocks ease as investors wary after oil drops

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[HONG KONG] Asian stocks took a step back on Monday after three consecutive weeks of gains as a retreat in oil prices left investors in a ponderous mood about the health of the global economy.

Oil prices slipped for a second day, extending Friday's slide of over one per cent after the US rig count rose for the first time since December, renewing worries of a supply glut after an output freeze proposal had helped boost the market to 2016 highs.

The wobbles in the oil market, and general downturn in commodities combined with cooling growth in China, have rattled financial markets in recent months. Fears about the outlook for global growth was also instrumental in the Federal Reserve last week indicating a slower path to future rate increases.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was down 0.2 per cent in early trade after entering positive territory for the first time this year on Friday. It is up 16 per cent from January's lows.

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With Japan closed for a holiday, Antipodean markets were broadly mixed in morning trade with New Zealand up slightly and Australia easing 0.1 per cent.

In the absence of any fresh major economic data in a holiday-shortened week, investors were left to ponder the renewed softening bias from the Fed even as the US economic recovery appeared to gather fresh steam.

US dollar bulls were hit hard last week after the Fed's less hawkish stance.

Fed chair Janet Yellen sounded doubtful that a recent firming in US inflation would be sustained, suggesting the central bank is in no hurry to tighten policy.

"Removing two full hikes from the baseline projections is still a significant move at a time the US economy still looks in pretty good shape," ANZ strategists wrote in a daily note.

"But one still has to wonder if the Fed is reverting back into old habits of providing markets with additional stimulus every time they throw a tantrum."

A brighter outlook for the US economy helped Wall Street, where the S&P 500 Index gained 0.44 per cent to close in the black on Friday.

Rate markets also cheered the Fed's cautiousness with 10-year and two-year US yields down by 14 and 16 basis points since the US central bank's meeting last week.

Credit markets basked in the afterglow of the recent rally with an index of high-yield credit extending gains to be up 9 per cent in roughly a month.

In currencies, the US dollar index was little changed at 95.042, not far from a five-month trough of 94.578 set on Friday.

The greenback fetched 111.51 yen, still within reach of Friday's 17-month low of 110.67. The euro, which last week scaled a one-month peak of US$1.1342, stood at US$1.1271.

The Australian dollar consolidated gains after hitting its highest level in nine months last week at 0.7681 per US dollar. It was changing hands at 0.7591 on Monday.

The front-month in US crude's West Texas Intermediate (WTI) futures fell more than a one per cent to US$38.98 per barrel after briefly peaking above US$41 per barrel, its highest since last December.

Brent crude's front-month edged lower to US$40.94 per barrel after hitting this year's peak of US$42.54 per barrel.

REUTERS

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