By Daniel Leussink
TOKYO (Reuters) - Asian shares held near 4-1/2-month highs on Thursday after U.S. Federal Reserve minutes affirmed it would be "patient" on interest rate rises and risk assets got a lift from hopes of further progress in U.S.-China trade talks.
MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan were steady in early trade, hovering just off their highest since early October.
Australian shares gave up early gains, last trading 0.1 percent lower, but the Australian dollar rallied in the wake of strong full-time jobs figure.
Japan's Nikkei was down 0.3 percent after closing at a two-month high during the previous session.
Investors eyed signs of progress in the latest round of trade negotiations between the United States and China, amid expectations that U.S. President Donald Trump will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping next month to strike a deal.
Trump said on Tuesday that trade negotiations were going well and suggested he was open to pushing off the deadline to complete negotiations, saying March 1 was not a "magical" date.
"We'll see the Asian market start on the front foot, but we'll need another catalyst, another driver, to take us to strong moves to the top side," said Nick Twidale, chief operating officer at Rakuten Securities Australia in Sydney.
"We've got the Fed Minutes out of the way. They were a big event risk for a lot of (participants in) the market. They've come in largely in expectation with what the market was thinking."
On Wall Street, all three major U.S. equity indexes ended in positive territory on Wednesday after minutes from the Fed's Jan. 29-30 meeting indicated policymakers see little risk to leaving rates alone, for now.
"The bar to restarting rate hikes in the near term seems to be quite high, with several participants arguing that rate increases would be necessary "only if inflation outcomes were higher than in (the) baseline outlook", Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, said in a note.
"The upshot is we now expect the Fed to leave rates unchanged throughout this year, before a further deterioration in economic growth forces it to cut rates by a total of 75 basis points in 2020," he said.
The Fed signalled it will soon lay out a plan to stop letting go of $4 trillion in bonds and other assets, though policymakers are still debating how long their newly adopted "patient" stance on U.S. rates policy will last.
AUSSIE JUMPS, EURO STEADY
In the currency market, the Australian dollar was in the spotlight after Australia added more full-time employment in January as expected.
The Aussie rallied more than half a percent to a two-week high of $0.72075 after the release of the figures, which showed Australia added 65,400 in full-time employment in January, with the unemployment rate steady at 5.0 percent.
The euro held steady at $1.1341. Purchasing manager indexes for the euro zone are due on Thursday and investors are also eyeing the release of minutes from the European Central Bank's January meeting later in the day.
Against the Japanese yen, the dollar was about 0.1 percent lower at 110.70 yen, moving off a seven-week peak of 111.13 reached last week.
The offshore Chinese yuan was steady at 6.7174 per dollar after touching its highest in about three weeks during the previous session.
The United States is seeking to secure a pledge from China it will not devalue its yuan as part of an agreement intended to end the countries' trade war, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday.
In the commodity market, crude prices rose more than 1 percent on Wednesday to their highest in 2019 on hopes that oil markets will balance later this year. [O/R]
Oil prices were also helped by output cuts from top producers and U.S. sanctions on the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) members Iran and Venezuela.
U.S. crude was last up nearly 0.1 percent, or 5 cents, at $57.21 per barrel. Brent was steady at $67.08.
Gold rose 0.2 percent on the day to $1,341.20, crawling its way back up to a 10-month peak of $1,346.70 scaled on Wednesday.
(Editing by Jacqueline Wong)
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Updated Date: Feb 21, 2019 07:05:38 IST