GLOBAL MARKETS-Asia stocks steady after Fed scare, eye further yuan slide

Fri Mar 21, 2014 1:48am EDT

(Adds Fitch affirmation of US 'AAA' rating)

* Asia shares aided as Wall St recoups post-Fed losses

* Dollar underpinned as short-term US yields hit 6-mth peak

* China's yuan heads for sharpest fall in two decades

* Quartet of Fed speakers set to test market nerves

By Wayne Cole

SYDNEY, March 21 (Reuters) - Asian markets found their footing on Friday after Wall Street shook off concerns about Federal Reserve policy, while a spike in U.S. bond yields kept the dollar underpinned near three-week highs.

After falling sharply on Thursday, regional stocks battled to regain some of the losses. The Australian market edged up 0.7 percent while MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan added 0.5 percent.

Hong Kong and China stocks also rebounded, despite growing concerns about fallout from China's economic slowdown and a further slide in the yuan to 13-month lows.

Investors found some comfort in Wall Street's ability to bounce as the S&P 500 closed up 0.6 percent and the Dow 0.67 percent. Japan's Nikkei was not able to share the relief because markets were closed for a holiday.

Ratings agency Fitch removed one potential danger by affirming the United States' triple 'A' rating while taking it off negative watch, citing strong fiscal consolidation and the advantages of having the world's reserve currency.

The U.S. dollar continued to benefit from Fed Chair Janet Yellen's suggestion that the first increase in interest rates could come in the first half of 2015, which would be earlier than many had expected.

Just the thought of such a prospect was enough to lift two-year Treasury yields to their highest in six months and left them up 8 basis points for the week so far.

Markets will thus be hyper-sensitive to comments from a quartet of Fed speakers later on Friday. St. Louis Fed President James Bullard, Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher, Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota and Fed Governor Jeremy Stein are all due to talk.

Clarity may not be forthcoming, however, as each has very different outlooks on policy, stretching from the hawkish Fisher to the dovish Kocherlakota.

Against a basket of major currencies, the U.S. dollar was trading at 80.163, not far from the high of 80.354, a level not seen since late February.

The euro wallowed at $1.3783, having plumbed a two-week low of $1.3749. It was on track to post a 1.0 percent drop this week.

Not helping the common currency, European Central Bank Executive Board Member Sabine Lautenschlaeger said rates will remain low or go even lower for an extended period. ID:nF9N0HR00S]

The U.S. dollar was steady on the yen at 102.35 having topped out at 102.69.

HOW FAR WILL IT FALL?

Attention in Asia was again on China's yuan, which extended recent losses, with the People's Bank of China (PBOC) seemingly content with the decline. The currency has fallen more than 1.2 percent so far this week, which would be the largest weekly loss since 1992.

In chaotic early trade, the yuan bounced in range between a low of 6.2374 per dollar, its weakest since Feb. 25, 2013, and a high of 6.2224. It later appeared to steady around 6.2231, but has had a habit of taking sudden lurches lower this week.

Government economists and advisers involved in internal policy discussions told Reuters that the central bank chose to widen the yuan's trading band since it was less risky than other reform options while also offering a way to hedge against further economic slowdown.

A weaker yuan would provide some relief to struggling exporters and the PBOC has the means to steer it lower while avoiding sharp swings.

However, a major drop in the yuan could put pressure on other nations in the region to depreciate their currencies and keep their exports competitive.

Several currencies from the Thai baht to Malaysian ringgit have indeed turned lower over the last couple of days and dealers are watching nervously to see if that could be the start of a trend.

In commodity markets, gold was pinned at $1,332.70 an ounce having shed 3.6 percent for the week so far.

Brent eased 39 cents to $106.06 a barrel, while U.S. crude for May delivery lost 59 cents to $98.31 per barrel. (Editing by Eric Meijer & Kim Coghill)