Asian shares fell on Thursday after a set of weak U.S. data rekindled worries about global growth and prompted a shift away from riskier assets, lifting the yen and underpinning the dollar.

An unexpected drop in U.S. home sales last month, which sparked a broad sell-off on Wall Street on Wednesday, followed a decline in U.S. consumer confidence, highlighting risks to recovery in the world's biggest economy.

That unnerved investors in the Asia Pacific, who trimmed exposure to stocks and shifted out of high-yielding currencies in favor of the dollar and the Japanese yen.

The New Zealand dollar came under additional pressure after the central bank vowed to maintain record low rates until at least July 2010.

We're following on from a weaker lead offshore, with everything down; metals, oil, gold the works, so naturally that will take us lower as well, said Lucinda Chan, division director at Macquarie Equities in Australia.

The yen's strength added pressure on shares of exporters in Japan, driving the Nikkei index <.N225> down 2 percent and below the 10,000 mark for the first time in three weeks.

The yen rose to 90.56 to the dollar from 90.78 on Wednesday, when it gained more than 1 percent, while the dollar held firm against a basket of currencies <.DXY> near its highest in more than two weeks.

The MSCI index of Asia Pacific stocks traded outside Japan <.MIAPJ0000PUS> slid 2.3 percent while the Thomson Reuters index of regional shares <.TRXFLDAXPU> was down 1.5 percent, marking a third losing session in a row.

Sentiment soured after the Dow Jones industrial average <.DJIA> fell 1.2 percent on Wednesday as the home sales report overshadowed news that U.S. durable goods orders rose for the second time in three months.

The housing data raised fears that U.S. third-quarter gross domestic product, due out later on Thursday, would fall short of forecasts. A Reuters poll estimates the world's biggest economy grew at an annualized rate of 3.3 percent.


Receding rate rise expectations in New Zealand heaped pressure on the Kiwi dollar, which fell as far as $0.7163, its lowest level in more than three weeks, after the central bank kept interest rates on hold and said it expected them to remain at a record low until July at least.

The bank's unexpectedly dovish statement dashed market speculation New Zealand could raise rates early next year. While Norway followed Australia and raised interest rates on Wednesday as its economy recovers from the global downturn, New Zealand central bank governor Alan Bollard was notably cautious about the global outlook on Thursday.

There remain significant vulnerabilities and challenges to be worked through in many economies, Bollard said in a statement. This process could weigh on global growth going forward.

Australian banks have also been surprisingly cautious this week, despite being far less affected by the financial crisis than their U.S. and European peers.

Mike Smith, chief executive of Australia and New Zealand Banking Group , the smallest of Australia's four big lenders, said on Thursday the global financial crisis was only just beginning to play out and global economies continued to be fragile.

This isn't over yet, Smith said. Often it's the aftershocks that do the most damage.

The bank reported a strong recovery in second-half profits but its cautious outlook helped push its shares down 2 percent in Sydney in step with the benchmark S&P/ASX 200 index <.AXJO>.

Resources stocks, hit by falling commodity prices, led the decline, with mining giant Rio Tinto down 4.7 percent.

The oil price was down 0.2 percent at $77.28 a barrel after losing $2.09 on Wednesday.

In Tokyo, Japan Airlines <9205.T> bucked the slide in Japanese shares, surging 6.3 percent after the Nikkei business daily said the government would announce a plan, as soon as Thursday, to restructure the struggling carrier.

NEC Electronics Corp <6723.T> tumbled 11.9 percent after reporting on Wednesday a far bigger quarterly loss than a year ago.

(Additional reporting by Adrian Bathgate in Wellington; editing by Tomasz Janowski)