Sydney: Asian share markets stayed soggy on Friday after Chinese trade data proved to be a mixed bag, leaving investors with little incentive to take positions ahead of the US jobs report.

While China’s exports grew a little less than expected at 4.3% in December, from a year earlier, imports easily outpaced forecasts with an increase of 8.3%.

The jump in imports could point to stronger domestic demand and a rebalancing away from a reliance on exports to fuel growth, a sea change long desired by policy makers everywhere.

“This indicates that domestic demand is not as soft as had been feared, and the Chinese economy - while decelerating - is unlikely to see a sharp slowdown," said Dariusz Kowalczyk, an economist at Credit Agricole CIB in Hong Kong.

“The data is positive for China and Asia sentiment as it alleviates concerns that China is slowing too sharply."

That helped limit the fallout in markets with shares in Shanghai trimming early losses to be near flat. Japan’s Nikkei also pared losses to be down 0.4%, while the Hong Kong market added 0.5%.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan also inched up 0.1%.

The Chinese numbers were just an appetiser compared to the US jobs report.

Payrolls are forecast to have risen by a solid 196,000 in December, according to a Reuters survey of economists, just below November’s count of 203,000. As ever for this volatile series estimates ranged widely from 120,000 to 235,000.

The jobless rate is expected to stay at 7% though there was some risk of a higher number should the participation rate rise from its unusually low levels.

Investors are not sure whether to be pleased the world’s largest economy is recovering, or worried it might bring forward the day when the Federal Reserve starts hiking rates.

The worry seemed to be winning out this week with futures markets shifting sharply to price-in a much earlier start to Fed tightening. Fed fund futures are now fully priced for a hike to 0.5% by July 2015. Not long ago the market had been wagering on early 2016.

The hesitancy was evident on Wall Street, where the Dow fell 0.11%, while the S&P 500 ended flat and the Nasdaq dropped 0.23%.

Draghi makes dovish noises

In contrast to the Fed, the European Central Bank keeps holding out the prospect of yet more stimulus in the euro zone.

On Thursday, ECB president Mario Draghi underlined his determination to act should deflation become a real risk or rising money rates threaten a fragile recovery.

“The ECB’s monthly press conference was very dovish in light of the current weakness in euro area inflation," said Dylan Eades an economist at Australia and New Zealand Bank.

“ECB president Draghi left the market in no doubt that the ECB will act again if necessary."

The euro duly fell over half a US cent on those words, only to meet broad demand around $1.3548 which saw it recoup all the losses. On Friday, it was steady at $1.3603 with dealers now wary of trying to short the currency.

Tight ranges held across most other major currencies, with the dollar stuck at 104.85 yen and the euro at ¥142.59. Against a basket of currencies the dollar was a whisker easier at 80.944.

Gold was likewise sidelined at $1,229.74 an ounce.

US crude futures bounced 77 cents to $92.43 a barrel after hitting an eight-month trough at $91.24 overnight. Brent crude also edged up 30 cents to $106.69 per barrel. Reuters

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