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Asia: Shares subdued amid US holiday, eyes on Unilever


[SYDNEY] Asian share markets got off to a subdued start on Monday as political uncertainty kept the mood cautious, while the US dollar softened a touch ahead of a busy week for Federal Reserve speakers.

Turnover was light with US markets closed for the Presidents Day holiday. MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan eased 0.1 per cent to inch away from a 19-month peak set last week.

Japan's Nikkei slipped 0.5 per cent as domestic data showed exports disappointed in January even as imports outpaced forecasts.

Shares in Unilever Plc could retreat after US food company Kraft Heinz Co withdrew its proposal for a US$143-billion merger. Unilever's shares had jumped 13 per cent on Friday on news of the bid.

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Wall Street had ended last week on a roll, with all three major indexes making historic highs and the Dow Jones Industrial Average reaching a seventh straight record close.

A host of results from retailers are due this week, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc, Macy's and Home Depot Inc. The results will be watched for a read on spending as well as for commentary from executives on President Donald Trump's proposal to tax imports.

On the interest rate front, no less than five heads of regional Federal Reserve bank are due to speak this week while Fed Board Governor Jerome Powell appears on Wednesday.

Speculation the central bank could hike as soon as March has generally underpinned the US dollar, though large long positions leave the market vulnerable to sudden pull backs.

On Monday, the dollar was down 0.1 per cent against a basket of currencies at 100.850 and little changed on the yen at 112.91.

European politics kept the euro skittish.

Germany's centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) moved ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) in an opinion poll by the Emnid institute for the first time since 2006, Bild am Sonntag said.

On Friday, news the French left could unite behind one candidate in the presidential elections seemed to increase the chance of anti-EU, anti-immigrant Marine Le Pen winning and knocked the single currency lower.

The euro stood at US$1.0619 on Monday, having fallen 0.6 per cent on Friday, not far from the recent five-week low of US$1.0520. Risk aversion sparked a rally in German bonds while widening the spread against French debt.

Oil prices were barely changed having suffered the first weekly decline in five weeks as the market weighed rising US drilling and record stockpiles against efforts by major producers to cut output to reduce a global glut.

Brent futures were off 4 US cents at US$55.77 a barrel, while US West Texas Intermediate crude for April delivery added a US cent to US$53.79 a barrel.