Asian investors drifted Wednesday after a two-day advance, with focus on the Federal Reserve's crucial policy meeting that comes against a backdrop of heightened inflation fears fuelled by an expected economic resurgence.
While the battle against the coronavirus continues to rage and some countries reimpose containment measures, the rollout of vaccines, signs of slowing infections and huge government and central bank largesse are providing massive support to equities.
But that has also raised concerns about soaring prices and the prospect the Fed will have to wind back the loose monetary policies -- including record-low interest rates -- that have powered a year-long rally.
US benchmark 10-year Treasury yields -- a guide to future interest rates -- have risen to a one-year high in recent weeks.
Highlighting the importance of the issue to markets, a survey by Bank of America Merrill Lynch found that the virus was not traders' main concern now.
"That honour goes to higher-than-expected inflation, with a bond market tantrum at number two," said Axi strategist Stephen Innes. "So indeed, inflation tops the markets' new 'Wall of Worry'."
With that in mind, the end of the Fed's two-day policy meeting later in the day and boss Jerome Powell's comments have taken on increasing significance.
"The Fed will be loath to send any hawkish signal," Innes added. "Still, the board faces a tricky balancing act as incorporating the US stimulus into their forecast will lower unemployment and push inflation over two percent in 2023."
He said this could mean a rate hike in two years.
Asia struggled after a tepid lead from Wall Street, with Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai barely moved, while Sydney, Seoul, Mumbai, Taipei, Jakarta, Bangkok and Wellington all fell. Singapore and Manila edged up.
London and Paris were lower at the open but Frankfurt was slightly higher.
"Most asset classes (are) contenting themselves to march on the spot ahead of the... meeting," said OANDA's Jeffrey Halley.
And Tapas Strickland at National Australia Bank added: "There is the potential for large moves in either direction with Powell needing to walk a fine line of acknowledging the improvement (in the US economy), but also that the Fed isn't intending on changing its policy guidance."
- Key figures around 0820 GMT -
Tokyo - Nikkei 225: FLAT at 29,914.33 (close)
Hong Kong - Hang Seng: FLAT at 29,034.12 (close)
Shanghai - Composite: FLAT at 3,445.55 (close)
London - FTSE 100: DOWN 0.1 percent at 6,797.85
Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.1897 from $1.1902 at 2100 GMT
Pound/dollar: UP at $1.3917 from $1.3889
Euro/pound: DOWN at 85.47 pence from 85.66 pence
Dollar/yen: UP at 109.15 yen from 109.00 yen
West Texas Intermediate: UP 0.7 percent at $65.27 per barrel
Brent North Sea crude: UP 0.6 percent at $68.81 per barrel
New York - Dow: DOWN 0.4 percent at 32,825.95 (close)