LONDON: World shares slipped on Wednesday after two days of gains amid mounting concern over world growth and trade, though the British pound rallied half a percent on optimism that lawmakers were set to rule out a no-deal Brexit.
European shares opened flat to weaker, unable to shake off the somber mood in Asian trading. Last week's optimism over U.S.-China trade talks has faded after U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said it was unclear whether gaps between the two sides could be closed.
Data continue to reinforce the picture of a slowing world economy. Japan's machinery orders fell in January at the fastest pace in four months, pushing the Nikkei down more than 1 percent.
Australia also continued its run of weak numbers, as an index of consumer sentiment slipped in March. U.S. monthly inflation rose, according to Tuesday data, but the gain was the smallest since September 2016.
That's kept equity markets nervous. MSCI's Asia-Pacific equity index lost 0.3 percent, although a pan-European benchmark inched up. German and French indexes slipped around 0.2 percent. Wall Street was set for a weaker open, futures show.
"Markets are still hopeful for a U.S.-China trade deal - my concern is that this is not necessarily going to ride to the rescue of the weak economy ... ," said Steve Barrow, G10 strategist at Standard Bank. "That means riskier financial assets like equities are going to struggle from here."
All that's kept MSCI's world index off the 4 1/2-month highs it reached when Washington and Beijing appeared close to a trade agreement. The index has failed to make headway in March after two months of gains
Britain's political chaos is also weighing on sentiment. It hasn't been able to agree on how to exit the European Union by a March 29 deadline. On Tuesday, lawmakers defeated for a second time Prime Minister Theresa May's proposed Brexit agreement. But they are expected to reject leaving the EU without a deal.
Those expectations are boosting the pound after this week's volatile ride. Sterling rose as high as US$1.3290 and as low as US$1.2945. It was trading 0.7 percent higher at US$1.3150. UK stocks and government bonds were flat
UBS analysts said even if lawmakers rejected no-deal Brexit, the eventual outcome was still unclear. It advised clients to "remain cautious, and avoid chasing short-term rallies in sterling or increasing exposure to UK equities."
The other saga convulsing world markets this week has been Boeing's shares, as more and more countries ground its 737 MAX 8 planes after Sunday's crash in Ethiopia, the model's second fatal recent crash in les than six months.
Boeing's Frankfurt-listed shares shed another 2 percent to six-week lows. A 6 percent fall in New York on Tuesday pushed the Dow down 0.4 percent.
However, the S&P 500 and Nasdaq benchmarks closed higher after a weak inflation report for February reinforced expectations the Federal Reserve will remain patient on rates and may sound more dovish at next week's meeting.
Those expectations had taken U.S. 10-year bond yields to 10-week lows at 2.596 percent on Tuesday and pushed the dollar lower for a fourth straight day against a basket of currencies.
German 10-year bond yields also fell, getting closer to zero percent.
The Australian and New Zealand dollars slid 0.3 percent, whacked by Australia's weak consumer confidence figures.
The euro was flat against the dollar around US$1.129, up from the 20-month lows of US$1.1174 it hit after the European Central Bank pushed back its rate-rise schedule and announced a cheap-loans program for banks.
On commodity markets, the dip in the dollar helped gold hit its highest in two weeks at almost US$1,307 per ounce.
Brent crude oil futures edged up around 0.3 percent to US$66.88 a barrel after a Saudi official said the kingdom planned to reduce oil exports and the U.S. government cut its forecast for domestic output growth.
(Reporting by Sujata Rao, additional reporting by Dhara Ranasinghe in London and Wayne Cole in Sydney; editing by Larry King)