* Funds return to emerging markets, drag on U.S. dollar
* Nikkei weathers firmer yen, disappointing Japanese figures
* China loan expansion seen as positive, U.S. markets shut for holiday
By Wayne Cole
SYDNEY, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Asian shares built on their recent rally on Monday as worries about emerging markets continued to ebb, sucking the safe-haven support out of the U.S. dollar while giving commodities a lift.
Stocks across the region felt the benefit with MSCI’s index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan up 0.7 percent, bringing its gains to almost 6 percent in eight sessions. Indonesia’s market added 0.8 percent, as did the Philippines.
Several once-embattled Asian currencies all gained ground as sentiment improved and dealers reported an influx of funds to many emerging markets. The Indonesian rupiah did especially well with the dollar down 4 percent in as many days.
The lower dollar in turn tends to be positive for commodities priced in that currency, helping spur gold to a fresh three-month peak at $1,329.55.
Even Japan’s Nikkei managed to shrug off a firmer yen and soft domestic data to gain 0.5 percent. It had eased earlier as the U.S. dollar lost a quarter of a yen to 101.58 , while the euro made a three-week peak at $1.3723.
The calmer mood was only briefly ruffled by data showing Japan’s economy grew just 0.3 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, compared with the previous quarter, confounding forecasts of a 0.7 percent gain.
The disappointing result will keep pressure on the Bank of Japan to support the economy once an increase in the sales tax goes through in April. The central bank’s latest policy meeting ends on Tuesday and the market will be keen to see what it makes of the growth figures.
“We still have to see how much last-minute domestic demand ahead of the sales tax hike boosts January-March GDP before pondering whether extra fiscal and monetary stimuli are needed,” said Junko Nishioka, chief economist at RBS Securities in Tokyo.
In energy markets, Brent oil futures dipped 13 cents on Monday to $108.95 a barrel, while U.S. crude firmed 30 cents to $100.60.
There was better news on China as data showed banks there disbursed the highest volume of loans in any month in four years in January, a surge that suggests the world’s second-biggest economy may not be cooling as much as some fear.
Chinese banks made 1.32 trillion yuan ($218 billion) worth of new yuan loans in January, beating a 1.1 trillion yuan forecast and nearly three times December’s level.
It is usual for loans to spike in January, when banks try to lend as much as they can to grab market share, but last month’s surge was still the largest since January 2010.
The next hurdle will be Thursday’s HSBC flash PMI survey of manufacturers for February, given that January’s disappointing result sent ripples through global markets.
The same day has a rash of flash PMIs for Europe and the United States, along with U.S. inflation data.
Finance ministers and central bankers from the Group of 20 also start their meeting in Sydney on Thursday. Events run through to Sunday, when European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, among others, gives a news conference.
Minutes of the February policy meeting of the Federal Reserve are due on Wednesday but are not expected to differ greatly from the steady outlook offered by Fed chief Janet Yellen last week.
Yellen still has to appear before the Senate after her testimony was postponed due to bad weather, but no firm day has been set as yet.