SYDNEY (Reuters) -- Asian equities got off to a sluggish start on Wednesday as concerns about corporate earnings hobbled Wall Street while investors counted down to the European Central Bank's policy meeting later in the week.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan drifted off 0.07 percent. Australian stocks lost 0.2 percent as worries about China weighed on commodity prices.

There was little in the way of a lead from Wall Street where the Dow ended Tuesday 0.1 percent lower, while the S&P 500 eased 0.14 percent and the Nasdaq 0.5 percent.

The S&P healthcare sector shed 1.5 percent, dragged by Allergan and Pfizer, while a drop in IBM offset gains in companies that reported strong quarterly results such as Verizon and United Technologies.

Earnings for S&P 500 companies are expected to have fallen about 4 percent in the third quarter, while revenue is expected to have declined 3.8 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Economic news from the United States was moderately upbeat as housing starts increased 6.5 percent in September to an annual pace of 1.21 million units, beating expectations for 1.15 million units.

There was also better news on bank lending in the euro zone as data from the ECB showed a further easing in credit conditions and improving demand for loans.

That might lessen the need for the ECB to immediately ramp up its 1 trillion euro asset purchase program.

The ECB's governing council meets on Thursday and markets expect it to highlight a willingness to act to boost inflation, but not just yet.

"The general consensus is that the ECB has been trying to moderate expectations this week, suggesting it's too early for discussion around extending the current QE program," said analysts at Citi.

The euro was steady at $1.1351, hemmed in by support at $1.3300 and resistance around $1.1386. The dollar index, which measures the greenback against a basket of six major currencies, was last down a shade at 94.855.

The New Zealand dollar hit a one-week low of $0.6737 after a disappointing global dairy auction saw prices for the country's single largest export fall 3.1 percent.

Oil prices softened on speculation U.S. inventory data would only underline the extent of oversupply in the world. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) will report official inventory data on Wednesday.

U.S. crude was off 40 cents at $45.89 per barrel.

(Reporting by Wayne Cole; Editing by Eric Meijer)