Asian markets up ahead of US central bank meeting

HONG KONG (AFP) - Asian markets edged up on Wednesday on bargain-hunting, although gains were limited following more losses on Wall Street, while investors await the outcome of a Federal Reserve policy meeting.

Oil prices extended their losses to fresh five-and-a-half-year lows, while the US dollar dipped against the yen ahead of the Fed get-together, which is being closely watched for an idea about its plans for interest rates.

Tokyo edged up 0.49 per cent, Hong Kong added 0.12 per cent, Sydney was 0.49 per cent higher, Seoul put on 0.10 per cent and Shanghai tacked on 0.35 per cent.

Singapore stocks bucked the trend, with the Sraits Times Index down 9.77 points, or 0.3 per cent, at 3,205.32 at around 11.45am.

Global markets have been in turmoil this week owing to concerns about the effects of plunging oil prices on energy firms as well as the Russian economy, which is also straining under the weight of Western sanctions.

On Wednesday, crude slipped again, ahead of the release of the latest United States supply report. US benchmark West Texas Intermediate for January delivery fell 56 cents to $55.37 while Brent crude for February was down 19 cents to $59.82.

US dealers offered a weak lead, with unease over the crude market as well as Russian woes leading to a sell-off on Wall Street.

The Dow eased 0.65 per cent, the S&P 500 fell 0.85 per cent and the Nasdaq tumbled 1.24 per cent.

However, Asia investors took advantage of cheap valuations.

"After several days of steep falls, stocks are definitely cheap enough to pick up, but the markets remains beholden to exterior influences such as volatile currency and commodity price," Hiroichi Nishi, SMBC Nikko Securities general manager of equities, told Dow Jones Newswires.

"The turmoil may be far from over."

Eyes are now on the end, later on Wednesday, of the Fed's two-day meeting, with dealers looking for some guidance over monetary policy amid growing speculation that the central bank will hike interest rates by the middle of 2015.

Despite expectations of higher US rates, the dollar continues to retreat against the yen, with fears over the global economy sending traders into safer investments.

The dollar was 116.50 yen against 116.59 yen in New York and well down from 117.39 yen in Tokyo earlier Tuesday.

The euro bought 146.20 yen and $1.2508 against 145.86 yen and US$1.2511.

Gold was at US$1,197.78 an ounce compared with US$1,199.36 late on Tuesday.