Filomena Scalise

Tokyo - Asian shares raced to two-week highs on Wednesday, with investor confidence getting a much needed boost from upbeat US data and lingering hopes China may take steps to stimulate its sagging economy.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan rose 0.8 percent to its highest level since March 11 while Japan's Nikkei ticked up 0.1 percent.

US consumer confidence rose more than expected in March, climbing to its highest level since January 2008 and US house prices increased solidly in January.

The reports were the latest in a string of positive reads on the US economy, adding more credence to the view that softness earlier this year was related to inclement weather and not economic weakness.

The upbeat data helped Wall Street shares rebound after a two-day decline, with the Standard & Poor's 500 Index gaining 0.4 percent.

Mainland Chinese shares also held firm near one-month high, even as rumour of insolvency led to a run on small banks.

Hit by a spate of negative news in recent weeks, including the Ukraine crisis and slowing growth in China, investors appear to be holding on to hopes that Beijing will take steps to bolster its sagging economy.

“Ongoing reaction to the possibility that China will soon move to implement economic stimulus may be the key to today's trading,” Ric Spooner, chief market analyst at CMC Markets in Sydney, said in a note to clients.

However, “stimulus initiatives are likely to be much more modest and less infrastructure and commodity focussed than previously”, he said.

The China stimulus expectations underpinned not only Chinese shares but many markets leveraged to the Asian giant, including Brazil, Australia as well as a host of commodities.

London copper futures rose to a two-week high of $6,623.75 per ton on Tuesday, while other commodities that had been battered earlier this month - ranging from iron ore and steel - also rebounded from their lows.

The Australian dollar hit four-month high of $0.9175 on Tuesday and last stood at $0.9159.

Other major currencies were stuck in well-worn ranges, with the euro fetching $1.3816 and the yen changing hands at 102.32 yen to the dollar.

Appetite for risk was also supported by easing geopolitical tensions over Ukraine after a meeting of Western leaders ended with little more than fist-shaking at Russia. US President Barack Obama and his allies agreed to hold off on more damaging economic sanctions unless Moscow goes beyond the seizure of Crimea.

The news that Moscow's and Kiev's foreign ministers had held an impromptu first meeting also led investors to believe the crisis triggered by Russia's annexation of Crimea is not heading into a wider armed conflict.

“The markets were worried that Russia might invade the southern or eastern part of Ukraine after Crimea. But the chances of that happening seems to be slim now, reducing investors' risk aversion,” said Kyosuke Suzuki, director of forex at Societe Generale.

Investor relief was palpable in Russia, where the rouble firmed to pre-Crimea crisis levels.

The rouble rose about 1.5 percent on Tuesday against the dollar-euro basket, its biggest gain in 1-1/2 years, to 41.68 to the basket, hitting a one-month high.

The MSCI emerging equities index also rose to a two-week high, with Brazilian shares tapping five-week highs despite a downgrade of Brazil's credit rating by US rating firm Standard & Poor's.

Meanwhile, precious metals lost some of their allure as concerns over Ukraine ease and as US short-term rates have risen.

Gold hit a five-week low of $1,305.59 per once on Tuesday and last stood at $1,313.20 while silver dropped to seven-week low of $19.78 per once. - Reuters