Asian shares steady, euro under pressure as ECB seen easing next week

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Asian shares got off to a slow start on Monday (Nov 23) as a holiday in Japan sapped liquidity, while the prospect of more policy easing in Europe kept the euro on the defensive to the benefit of the US dollar.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was all but flat, while South Korea's main index gained 0.2 per cent.

The head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, last week offered the strongest hint yet that the ECB will unveil fresh stimulus measures at its Dec. 3 policy meeting.

The contrast with the US Federal Reserve could not be more stark as it seems destined to lift rates in December for the first time in a decade, underpinning the dollar.

Wall Street could find support from news of another blockbuster merger. Sources told Reuters that Pfizer was due to secure formal board approval for its acquisition of Allergan for more than US$150 billion, creating the world's biggest drug maker.

The Dow had ended Friday up 0.51 per cent, while the S&P 500 added 0.38 per cent and the Nasdaq 0.62 per cent.

The S&P 500 boasted its best week in almost a year, while Europe's main stock index enjoyed its strongest week in a month.

"Interestingly, markets are treating the prospects of policy divergence reasonably well," said Jo Masters, a senior economist at Australia and New Zealand Bank. "But with two of the world's major central banks about to head on divergent policy paths, can such smooth sailing continue over the months ahead? Increased policy tension is likely to mean that volatility remains elevated."

The impact was clear in bond markets where yields on two-year German debt hit their lowest ever at minus 38 basis points, while US yields ended at their highest since mid-2010.

As a result the premium offered by US paper yawned out to 130 basis points, the fattest since 2006.

The drag from negative yields pulled the euro down to US$1.0637, threatening the recent seven-month trough around US$1.0615. It also peeled off to 130.78 yen, again the lowest since April.

Against a basket of currencies the US dollar edged up to 99.664, while the it was steady on the yen around 122.93.

The strength of the dollar kept commodity prices under pressure. Gold was stuck at US$1,076.11 an ounce having touched its lowest level in nearly six years.

Zinc, copper, lead and nickel were all near their lowest in five to seven years.

Oil prices dipped again with US crude off 35 cents at US$41.55 a barrel, while Brent lost 20 cents to US$44.46.