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Asian shares fall as Fed minutes show data may tweak stance

SINGAPORE (AP) — Asian markets were mostly lower on Thursday after the U.S. Federal Reserve released minutes of its meeting in March. While most officials believed the central bank would leave interest rates unchanged for the rest of the year, several said their views could shift with incoming data.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng gave up 0.6% to 29,929.66 and the Shanghai Composite index fell 0.8% to 3,215.79.The Kospi in South Korea was flat at 2,224.44. Australia's S&P ASX 200 slid 0.4% to 6,198.70. Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 bucked the regional trend, adding 0.1% to 21,711.38. Shares fell in Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia but rose in Singapore.

The Federal Open Market Committee released minutes from a meeting in March on Wednesday. There were no major surprises. It showed that most officials believed that the central bank would leave its key policy rate unchanged for the rest of the year.

This was in line with the outcome of the March 19-20 meeting, where the Fed trimmed its 2019 rate hikes outlook from two to none. In the minutes, several Fed officials also said that they may feel differently, depending on the data that surfaces.

Weaker growth and lower inflation expectations could prompt the Fed to cut rates, while stronger growth and rising inflation expectations could warrant a rate hike. An indication of flexibility caused Asian markets to open in a "slightly soft mood," said Selena Ling, chief economist at OCBC Bank.

"The FOMC minutes suggested that rates could head in either direction from here, but members generally favor being patient for the remainder of the year," she added in an interview. China reported inflation figures in March on Thursday that met market expectations. The country's producer price index rose 0.4% in March from a year ago, according to National Bureau of Statistics. This was up from February's 0.1% increase. Its consumer price index picked up 2.3% in March from a year earlier, as compared to a 1.5% gain in the previous month.

Over on Wall Street, strong gains by technology companies and small-company stocks lifted indexes, while utilities lagged. The broad S&P 500 index climbed 0.3% to 2,888.21. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was less than 0.1% higher at 26,157.16 and the Nasdaq composite jumped 0.7% to 7,964.24. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks rebounded 1.4% to 1,581.55.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude dropped 32 cents to $64.29 per barrel. It added 63 cents to settle at $64.61 per barrel on Wednesday. Brent crude shed 28 cents to $71.45 per barrel. The contract gained $1.12 to $71.73 per barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar strengthened to 111.11 yen from 111 yen late Wednesday. The euro rose to $1.1276 from $1.1273.

AP Business Writers Alex Veiga and Damian J. Troise contributed to this report.

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