Stocks, currencies count down to Greek meetings

By Wayne Cole

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Asian stock markets were subdued on Wednesday while major currencies barely budged as looming euro zone meetings to discuss the Greek debt crisis overshadowed a firmer finish on Wall Street.

Euro zone finance ministers meet later on Wednesday and EU leaders on Thursday, but officials are already downplaying the chance of a breakthrough. [TOP/EURO]

Moves were modest with trade thinned by a holiday in Tokyo, leaving MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan off a slight 0.03 percent.

Shares in Shanghai (.SSEC) edged up 0.2 percent as pressure grew for more stimulus after a very low reading on inflation stirred fears of deflation.

China’s central bank on Tuesday said it was ready to fight a downturn, while not taking excessive risks with credit creation.

Australia’s main index (.AXJO) slipped 0.6 percent even as a survey showing consumer confidence had surged to 13-month peaks in the wake of last week’s cut in domestic interest rates.

The Dow (.DJI) had ended up 0.79 percent, while the S&P 500 (.SPX) gained 1.07 percent and the Nasdaq (.IXIC) 1.3 percent.

Apple Inc (AAPL.O) became the first U.S. company worth more than $ 700 billion as its shares rose 1.9 percent after it priced Swiss franc bonds.

Microsoft (MSFT.O) also priced a new issue of bonds that starkly illustrated the desperate search for yield among investors in a low-inflation world.

The tech giant’s sale of $ 10.75 billion of debt was easily its largest ever, but drew orders for no less than $ 39 billion. Among the six tranches on offer, it was able to borrow money for 40 years at just 4 percent.

Treasuries had a tougher time amid growing talk the Federal Reserve could start raising interest rates by mid-year. Yields on 10-year notes were hovering at 1.99 percent having touched a four-week peak of 2.016 percent.

The rise in yields helped keep the dollar supported at 119.45 yen (JPY=), having climbed as high as 119.62 overnight. The dollar index was a tick lower at 94.655 (.DXY).

The euro struggled to find direction amid all the brinkmanship over Greece and last stood at $ 1.1325 (EUR=).

While markets are eager to assume a last-minute deal will be hammered out given the dire consequences otherwise, the situation appears extremely fluid with each new headline appearing to contradict the former.

Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, for instance, flagged the possibility that the country might get help from outside the EU if a deal was not forthcoming.

“It could be the United States at best, it could be Russia, it could be China or other countries,” he said.

In commodity markets, U.S. crude futures (CLc1) bounced 67 cents to $ 50.69 a barrel on news of a smaller-than-expected rise in crude inventories.

Brent crude (LCOc1) gained 40 cents to $ 56.83, but that followed a drop of $ 1.91 on Tuesday.

(Editing by Shri Navaratnam)

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