Asian bourses little changed ahead of crucial US Federal Reserve meeting outcome

SINGAPORE (Bloomberg) - Asia's benchmark equities gauge was little changed before a Federal Reserve meeting at which officials will assess the economy and debate the timing of the first US interest-rate increase since 2006.

The MSCI Asia Pacific Index declined less than 0.1 per cent to 144.80 as of 9:00 am in Tokyo, ahead of the Fed's interest rate decision and policy statement due Wednesday (Thursday 2am Singapore time).

The Fed is likely to remove an assurance from the statement that it will be "patient" before beginning to raise interest rates, opening the door to an increase as early as June, said Shane Oliver, Sydney-based global strategist at AMP Capital Investors.

"Markets are a bit nervous ahead of the meeting," Oliver said by phone. "It's possible that the market will be left none-the-wiser about whether the first rate hike will come in June or September, but we are undoubtedly getting closer." Japan's Topix index added 0.1 percent. Data showed the nation's exports rose more than economists predicted in February compared with the previous year, while imports unexpectedly declined.

South Korea's Kospi index advanced 0.1 percent and Australia's S&P/ASX 200 Index slid 0.4 per cent. New Zealand's NZX 50 Index retreated 0.5 per cent.

Almost 90 per cent of economists surveyed by Bloomberg predict Fed officials will drop the "patient" pledge from their statement to be released Wednesday. Some 45 per cent saw this as a step toward a June increase in rates, which have been held near zero since December 2008, according to the poll of 49 respondents conducted March 12 and 13. Thirty-seven percent saw rates rising in September.

Most traders predict an increase by year-end. The odds of a boost by September are 55 percent, futures contracts show, down from 59 on March 6, the date a jobs report showed employers added more workers than forecast to payrolls. There's a 63 per cent chance of a rate increase by October, down from 69 per cent on March 6, the data show.

Nintendo Co. was untraded and poised to surge. The computer-games maker is teaming up with DeNA Co. to develop new games for mobile devices made by others. The Japanese companies also agreed to a capital alliance in which they will buy 22 billion yen ($181 million) stakes in each other.

Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. tumbled 7.6 percent in Sydney after the fourth-largest iron ore exporter pulled plans to refinance some of its debt with a US$2.5 billion bond, citing volatile US credit markets and a failure to achieve the terms it wanted.