TOKYO (Reuters) - Asian shares edged higher on Monday but prices were capped by uncertainty facing the global economy after a private survey showed Chinese manufacturing activity retreated from two-year highs this month.
China's HSBC flash purchasing managers' index (PMI) for February slipped to a four-month low of 50.4 and down from January's final reading of 52.3, which had been the best performance since January 2011. But the PMI on Monday showed a fourth consecutive month of expansion, confirming that the world's No. 2 economy is recovering, albeit slowly.
Investors remain wary of fragility in the global economic recovery, having pushed markets broadly higher over the past few months on receding pessimism over the euro zone's debt crisis and U.S. budget woes.
Markets are also pondering whether Italy's weekend elections will produce a stable government, and the implications of that for euro zone cohesion, while Moody's credit downgrade on Britain weighed on confidence in the pound.
Investors await testimony on Tuesday from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke for further clues of when the Fed may slow or stop buying bonds. Financial markets were rattled last week after minutes of the Fed's January meeting suggested some Fed officials were mulling scaling back its strong monetary stimulus earlier than expected.
The MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan <.miapj0000pus> was up 0.1 percent, pulled higher by Australian shares <.axjo> which gained 0.6 percent on strong financials.
South Korean shares <.ks11> were nearly flat as the nation's first female president, who has shown willingness to talk down the won, was being inaugurated.
Korean carmakers came under pressure on news that an advocate of aggressive monetary easing was poised to head the Bank of Japan.
The Nikkei newspaper reported the Japanese government is likely to nominate Asian Development Bank President Haruhiko Kuroda and Kikuo Iwata, both vocal advocates of aggressive monetary expansion, as BOJ governor and deputy governor.
The Nikkei <.n225> jumped 2 percent to a 53-month high on Monday as the yen fell to fresh lows since May 2010 against the dollar.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday vowed to get the world's third biggest economy growing again as he met with President Barack Obama. The United States and Japan also agreed on language during Abe's visit that could set the stage for Tokyo to soon join negotiations on a U.S.-led regional free trade agreement - the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
"The news of Kuroda (as BOJ nominee) appears to be taken positively by the market, but I think signs of progress towards TPP are vital as it shows Abe is taking leadership in pushing structural reforms, with the TPP being a vital tool to boosting growth," said Tetsuro Ii, the chief executive of Commons Asset Management.
Abe has called on a mix of strong reflationary policies: aggressive monetary easing, huge fiscal spending and pro-growth strategies. Investors have cheered the mix, dubbed "Abenomics," pushing the Nikkei up some 30 percent and the yen down 20 percent against the dollar over the past three months.
Early on Monday, the yen touched a low of 94.77 against the dollar, while the euro rose to a high of 124.83 yen, still off its 34-month peak of 127.71 set early this month.
The dollar fell sharply to below 93 yen last week on media reports that Toshiro Muto, a former financial bureaucrat perceived as less willing to take unconventional steps, was the frontrunner candidate for the top BOJ job.
"The dollar's move this morning is merely a rebound from disappointment on Muto last week. I don't think this topic will be enough to hoist the dollar above 95 yen," said Hiroshi Maeba, head of FX trading Japan at UBS in Tokyo. "No matter who is elected at the BOJ, it will not affect the longer-term trend of a weak yen," he said.
Speculation over the BOJ has been a key factor driving the yen lower recently due to anticipation of strong reflationary measures, but other fundamental factors such as Japan's deteriorating trade balances and signs of firmer U.S. growth also supported a weakening yen trend.
In the U.S., with five days left before $85 billion is slashed from U.S. government budgets, the White House issued more dire warnings about the harm the cuts will do to Americans, breaking down the loss of jobs and services to each of the states.
Wall Street ended up on Friday on strong earnings from Dow component Hewlett-Packard
The euro steadied around $1.3190, off Friday's six-week low of $1.31445.
Sterling fell to a 31-month low of $1.5073 early on Monday and a record low against the New Zealand dollar at NZ$1.8025 following Friday's one-notch downgrade of Britain's prized triple-A sovereign rating by Moody's.
Hedge funds and other big speculators cut their bullish bets on U.S. commodities by the most in about 10 months in the week to February 19, just before oil and metals prices tumbled on rumors a commodities fund was dumping positions, data showed on Friday.
U.S. crude was down 0.1 percent to $93.07 a barrel and Brent fell 0.2 percent to $113.92.
(Editing by Eric Meijer)
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