GLOBAL MARKETS-Concerns about China and Ukraine help euro to 2-1/2 year high

Thu Mar 13, 2014 9:08am EDT

* Euro looks to test $1.40 resistance level

* Ukraine, China slowdown and copper rout sap risk appetite

* Russian shares slide to lowest in over 4 years

* Gold hits 6-month high; euro, Swiss franc 2 1/2-year high vs dollar

By Alistair Smout

LONDON, March 13 (Reuters) - The euro hit a new 2-1/2 year high against the dollar on Thursday as concerns over China's economy and international tensions over Ukraine took the fizz out of an attempted rebound in riskier assets.

U.S. stock index futures pointed to a stronger start on Wall Street than in Europe or Asia, however, with the S&P 500 on track to open in positive territory, supported by retail sales and jobs data that pointed to a strengthening U.S. economy.

The euro reached $1.3967 and looked set to test psychological resistance at a $1.40, in a sign that the currency may be regaining safe-haven status as the euro zone starts to recover from its prolonged sovereign debt crisis.

The euro zone economy seems to be picking up steam and investors are betting that the European Central Bank will not ease policy further to counter deflation risks, even though ECB policymaker Benoit Coeure reiterated the bank's readiness to act if real interest rates didn't fall.

"The policy messages and data support the euro and we think that will allow it to continue to push higher from here," said Ian Stannard, a strategist at Morgan Stanley in London.

More traditional safe-havens also strengthened, with the Swiss franc extending gains against the dollar to hit 0.8696 francs - its strongest since late 2011. The Japanese yen also firmed.

Stock markets in Europe were flat, pinned near one-month lows, with the pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 unable to recoup any of the 1.1 percent drop in the previous session.

The move echoed trading in Asia, where MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan managed to rise 0.5 percent, clawing back half the previous day's losses, despite concerns over Chinese growth that limited gains.

Soft Chinese data dented many markets. Japan's Nikkei slipped 0.1 percent, erasing gains made after Japanese machinery orders beat expectations, while South Korean shares also lost most of their earlier gains.

China's industrial output growth came in below forecasts for the combined January/February period, with retail sales also weaker than expected, stoking worries that growth could slow as Beijing pushes for economic reforms.

"The China economy is slowing quite sharply, in our view... (although) the lack of inflation and slowing growth does open the door for policy easing," Gerard Lane, equity strategist at Shore Capital, said in a note.

The MSCI All-Country World index edged up 0.1 percent, not far from an eight-day low hit on Wednesday.

A major victim of concerns over China, copper dropped 0.4 percent to $6,476.75 a tonne, a day after it hit a four-year low at $6,376.25.

After a tumble in copper of around 7.5 percent so far this month, investors are worried about a possible unravelling of Chinese loan deals using the metal - whose many industrial uses make it sensitive to global economic health - as collateral.

The diplomatic stalemate between Russia and the West over Crimea also supported safe haven assets.

Russia's RTS stock index fell 1.2 percent to its lowest point in over four years, while five-year credit default swaps rose 14 basis points to their highest since June 2012.

Gold hit a six-month high of $1,374.85, while U.S. Treasuries have erased all the losses made following last week's strong payrolls data. The benchmark 10-year yield was 2.73 percent on Thursday versus its six-week high of 2.82 percent hit last Friday.

The European Union agreed on a framework on Wednesday for its first sanctions on Russia since the Cold War.

"Markets are nervous over China and Ukraine, with the latter weighing the most because of the uncertainty of what will happen next and the seeming lack of any coordinated or effective response," Titan Investment Partners trader Darren Sinden said.

Geopolitical tension also supported oil. The European benchmark Brent held relatively firm at $107.94 as it drew support from the unfolding crisis in Ukraine.

U.S. crude futures steadied, although they remained near one-month lows hit on Wednesday after Washington announced a surprise plan for a test release of strategic oil reserves.

In debt markets, Irish government bond yields hit new record lows before Dublin's first regular debt auction since its 2010 bailout, seen as a post-crisis watershed for the country.

Ireland's successful return to regular bond auctions was undermined, however, by GDP data just half an hour later which showed a shock 2.3 percent decline in the fourth quarter.

A couple walks along the rough surf during sunset at Oahu's North Shore, December 26, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Find your dream retirement town

Florida? Hawaii? Reuters has teamed up with Zillow to give you the power to customize a list of your best places to retire.  Video | Full Article