TOKYO - Most Asian shares slumped on Wednesday as the prospects of a reduction in the US Federal Reserve's stimulus early next year prompted investors to cash in gains from recent rallies.
MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan fell 0.4 per cent after earlier hitting its lowest levels in almost two weeks, while Japan's Nikkei share average dropped 2.2 per cent from a six-year closing high set on Tuesday.
That retreat, which came after European shares had suffered their biggest falls since August, stemmed from profit-taking ahead of Friday's US job data, but also reflected worries about the Fed's exit from its asset purchase scheme.
European equities were expected to open flat to modestly higher, according to financial bookmakers.
"I think financial markets have already priced in an eventual tapering in the Fed's stimulus. The question is whether the economy can withstand it. The US economy slowed after the end of QE1 and QE2. So one cannot be so sure whether it would be okay this time," said Tohru Yamamoto, chief fixed income strategist at Daiwa Securities.
QE1 and QE2 refer to the Fed's previous episodes of massive asset purchasing, or quantitative easing, the first in 2008-2010 and the second in 2010-11.
Many analysts expect the Fed to begin reducing its latest bond purchases, dubbed QE3, at its March meeting, but some think that could be brought forward to January, or at the extreme, later this month, if the employment data comes in strong.
On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average .DJI fell 0.6 per cent while the Standard & Poor's 500 Index .SPX declined 0.32 per cent, with consumer discretionary shares leading the losses amid signs of weak holiday shopping.
While Friday's US jobs report for November is seen as by far the most important, traders will be looking to the ADP employment report, new home sales figures, services activity readings from the Institute for Supply Management, all of which are scheduled for Wednesday.
Solid data on US manufacturing and housing in recent weeks has boosted optimism that the US economy was barely damaged by a government shutdown in October.
The specter of tapering in the Fed's bond-buying could spook emerging market shares and currencies in particular -- given that they were among the hardest-hit when Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke floated the taper idea back in May.
"Ample liquidity from the Fed had flown to emerging markets, in a way hiding all the problems each market has. But after the Fed signaled tapering in May, investors are focusing on them," said Daisuke Uno, chief strategist at Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp.
In Asia, investors' concerns include persistent current account deficits in India and Indonesia, as well as the latest political instability in Thailand.