Asian shares at fresh 7-yr high, look past weak US data

TOKYO (Reuters) - Asian shares edged up in early trade on Friday, on track to score weekly gains and shrugging off a languid performance on Wall Street after another set of lacklustre U.S. economic data.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan added about 0.2 per cent in early trade, extending a seven-year high touched in the previous session and on track for weekly gains over 1 per cent.

U.S. stocks ended with modest losses amid worries about upcoming corporate earnings reports.

Japan's Nikkei stock average. slipped 0.6 per cent, poised for a weekly loss around 0.5 per cent. After breaking the 20,000 level for the first time in 15 years a week ago, the Nikkei has wobbled below it.

Overnight, U.S. data showed housing starts rose far less than expected in March and factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region grew modestly this month, suggesting the economic momentum will probably not be strong enough for the Federal Reserve to decide to start raising interest rates as early as June.

"The report marks more of the same slow and dull picture of health investors have recently become accustomed to for the domestic economy," Andrew Wilkinson, chief market analyst at U.S. electronic broker Interactive Brokers LLC, said in a note to clients.

Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank president Dennis Lockhart, a voting member of the Fed's rate-setting committee this year, said the recent "murky" run of U.S. data has him leaning against a June interest rate hike. Lockhart quickly added he was confident the economy will remain on track.

Comments from Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester and Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren also struck dovish tones.

Fading expectations for a June rate hike pressured the U.S. dollar. The U.S. unit bought 119.01 yen, nearly flat on the day but well off this week's high of 120.845.

The euro bought US$1.0773, up about 0.1 per cent on the day after climbing as high as US$1.0818 on Thursday despite rising concerns about Greece's financial woes.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told Reuters on Thursday he was "firmly optimistic" his government would reach an agreement with its creditors by the end of April despite friction over issues such as pension and labour reform.

The country's Finance Ministry denied a report by the Financial Times that Athens had approached the International Monetary Fund to request a delay in its loan repayments.

Crude oil prices fell in early Asian trading, giving back some of the sharp gains made overnight on news that a tribal group made up of former Al Qaeda militants took control of a major southern oil terminal in Yemen.

Brent crude shed 0.2 per cent to US$63.48 a barrel while U.S. crude gave up 0.3 per cent to US$56.53, after both hit 2015 peaks on Thursday.