(Reuters) - Asian shares eased and major currencies stayed range-bound Thursday as investors avoided betting on direction before a speech by U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, with focus on whether there will be any hint about further U.S. stimulus.
MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan <.MIAPJ0000PUS> inched down 0.2 percent and Japan's Nikkei stock average <.N225> opened down 0.1 percent. .T
U.S. crude oil fell 0.4 percent to $95.11 a barrel on Thursday, after slipping the previous day as Gulf Coast refineries and platforms seemed to have escaped damage from Hurricane Isaac.
European shares eased in thin volume while U.S. stocks edged higher on Wednesday in the lightest trading of the year, ahead of Friday's speech from Bernanke at the Jackson Hole meeting of central bankers and economists.
The venue takes place before the Fed's Sept. 12-13 policy meeting, where expectations remain for the U.S. central bank to take some form of easing step to underpin the fragile economy. Bernanke has used the Jackson Hole event in the previous two years to signal the Fed's easy policy intentions.
U.S. Treasuries prices fell on Wednesday to make room for new debt supply, but losses were limited by expectations for an easing signal from Bernanke, as well as for the European Central Bank to take bold action to tackle the region's debt crisis.
"With risk somewhat bid, the market continues to hunt for positions with the back end of the US Treasury curve still in focus but with little gusto, as all eyes are now on the Bernanke speech on Friday," said Sebastien Galy, strategist at Societe Generale.
The euro traded steady at $1.2530 and the dollar inched up 0.1 percent against the yen to 78.72. The euro stood little changed against the yen at 98.65.
Speculation the ECB was working ahead on a plan to buy bonds to lower peripheral euro zonestates' borrowing costs rose after ECB chief Mario Draghi wrote in an opinion piece in a German newspaper on Wednesday that the bank needed to employ "exceptional measures.
Draghi cancelled his attendance at Jackson Hole due to a heavy workload as he gears up for the bank's critical policy-setting meeting on Sept. 6, with markets expecting the central bank to provide details of the bond-buying scheme.
Markets might remain in ranges for weeks beyond Jackson Hole and the ECB meeting, with key events lined up that could clarify the timing of any further easing by the Fed, and the roadmap for the euro zone's crisis-management.
A key U.S. jobs report is due on Sept. 7 and the German constitutional court rules on the region's bailout funds on September 12, before euro zone finance ministers meet on Sept. 14-15.
A report on Greece by its international lenders is due by early October to determine whether Athens will get bailout.
The currency options market suggested players were not expecting sharp price swings, with one-month euro/dollar volatility still below 10 percent.
Later on Thursday, Italy faces a test of investor confidence when it sells 6.5 billion euro longer-dated bonds. Italian government bond yields fell on Wednesday as dealers sensed good demand for Thursday's issuance after two successful auctions earlier this week.
Growth worries continue to weigh on markets sensitive to commodities linked to industrial demand.
The Australian dollar fell to a one-month low around $1.0340 on Thursday, pressured by a steep drop in spot iron ore prices, which hit their lowest levels since late 2009 .IO62-CNI=SI. The ore is Australia's single biggest export earner.
The Shanghai Composite index <.SSEC> hit its lowest close since February 2009 on Wednesday on China's economic slowdown and a lack of signs for blunter policy measures.
But the Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> traded near a four-year high.
Wednesday's data showed pending home sales rose more than forecast and the Fed said in its Beige Book of anecdotal information on nationwide business activity that the U.S. economy continued to grow gradually in July and early August although manufacturing activity was softening.