* MSCI ex-Japan skids to one-month low, on track for weekly
* Yen builds on sharp overnight gains vs. dollar, euro
* Russian shares open sharply down ahead of Sunday
referendum in Crimea
* U.S. data reinforces taper expectations; China data fuels
By Lisa Twaronite
TOKYO, March 14 Asian shares dropped to a
one-month low and the yen pushed higher on Friday, as heightened
tension in Ukraine ahead of a weekend referendum sent investors
scurrying out of riskier assets.
European shares were poised to open lower, putting major
regional indexes on course for their worst weekly loss since
January. Financial spreadbetters expected Britain's FTSE 100
to open as much as 0.3 percent down, Germany's DAX
off 0.8 percent at the start and France's CAC 40
to slip as much as 0.6 percent.
The MICEX index of Russian stocks plunged 2.5 percent
at the open and was down 3.6 percent. Russia launched new
military exercises near its border with Ukraine on Thursday,
even as the U.S. cautioned that Moscow risked facing serious
steps if annexation was the outcome of a referendum planned for
Sunday in the Crimea.
"With the West warning of sanctions on Russia should that
happen, and Russia already exploring retaliatory actions to such
sanctions, traders fear that the situation could easily spin out
of control quicker than they can liquidate their positions,"
Jonathan Sudaria, a dealer at London Capital Group, wrote in a
note to clients.
MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan
fell 1.4 percent, touching its lowest level
since mid-February and on track for a weekly loss of more than 3
Japan's Nikkei stock average skidded 3.3 percent to
a one-month low, as the yen soared. For the week, the index
dropped 6.2 percent, the biggest weekly drop since last June.
"Investors are unwinding their long positions in the Nikkei
and short positions in the yen," said Kyoya Okazawa, head of
global equities and commodity derivatives at BNP Paribas.
The latest developments in the Ukraine crisis sent the
perennial safe-haven yen soaring against both the dollar and the
The greenback was down about 0.3 percent on Friday at 101.58
yen, while the common currency slipped about 0.3 percent
on the day to 140.79 yen.
TAPER ON TRACK
Solid U.S. retail sales and employment data also reinforced
expectations that the U.S. Federal Reserve will stick to its
plan of gradually withdrawing its asset-buying stimulus, while
Thursday's disappointing Chinese economic data continued to add
to the gloom.
U.S. retail sales rose 0.3 percent last month, ending two
straight months of declines, while separate data from the Labor
Department showed initial claims for state unemployment benefits
dropped to their lowest level since late November.
On Wall Street on Thursday, benchmark U.S. stock indices
fell more than 1.0 percent, posting their biggest daily losses
since early February, with the S&P500 stock index
tumbling 1.17 percent.
The yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note
fell to 2.638 percent in Asian trading from its U.S.
close of 2.653 percent.
Data on Thursday showed China's industrial output growth
fell short of forecasts for the combined January/February
period, and retail sales also came in weaker than expected. The
disappointing figures fuelled fears of a slowdown in the world's
second biggest economy.
That continued to weigh on the Australian dollar, considered
a proxy for China plays. The Aussie lost about 0.2
percent to $0.9009.
The euro also remained under pressure after comments from
European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, who said the bank
has been preparing additional policy steps to guard against
deflation taking hold in the euro zone.
The single currency was down about 0.1 percent at $1.3860
, moving away from Thursday's 2-1/2 year high of $1.3967
hit before Draghi spoke.
On the commodities front, copper was nearly flat on
the day at $6,414 a tonne, but was still on track for a weekly
loss on expectations of slower demand growth in China.
Gold, a safe-haven favourite, was nearly flat on the day at
$1,369.06 an ounce after earlier hitting a fresh
six-month high, and was poised for its sixth straight weekly
Brent crude held steady above $107 a barrel but
remained on track for its third weekly loss, while U.S. crude
edged down to $98.15 a barrel.