GLOBAL MARKETS-Asian shares off to shaky start, wary ahead of China factory report


TOKYO, April 1 (Reuters) - Asian shares were down slightly in early trade on Tuesday, as investors chose discretion over valour ahead of a key manufacturing survey from China even as Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen's dovish comments eased concerns of an early start to rate hikes.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan was down 0.2 percent, with Australian stocks leading the losses with a 0.6 percent fall. Japan's Nikkei share average rose 0.1 percent.

On Monday, U.S. stocks rose after Fed chief Yellen reinforced the need for "extraordinary" commitment to support the world's biggest economy, seemingly tempering expectations of a sooner-than-expected start to the rate-hike cycle.

Yellen gave a strong defence of the Fed's easy-money policies in her first public speech since becoming Fed chair two months ago, saying there remains "considerable" slack in the economy and job market.

"It seems like she expressed her own dovish ideas. There's nothing really new and the outlook of the Fed's policy has not changed that much but the markets like her remarks," Makoto Noji, senior strategist at SMBC Nikko Securities.

Global risk assets were partly underpinned in recent days on hopes China would take steps to stimulate its sagging economy.

The prospect of slowing growth in China, the world's second-largest economy, has long been a market headwind.

Recent economic data has pointed to the weakest growth there since the global financial crisis, and any signs of further weakness in a survey of Chinese manufacturing activity due around 0100 GMT will likely add to the case for more action from Beijing.

Emerging markets, which suffered a sharp selloff earlier this year on concerns about a turn in Fed policy, slowdown in China and political instability in some countries, appeared to have regained some stability.

MSCI emerging market index hit three-month high on Monday, having outperformed S&P 500 since late March. Among them, Brazilian shares hit four-month high.

Rising risk appetite undermined low-return assets that had attracted safety bids last month at the height of the Ukrainian crisis.

Gold hit a seven-week low of $1,282.04 per ounce on Monday, despite Yellen's dovish comments while the yen also slipped to a three-week low against the dollar of 103.44 yen and a nine-month low against the risk-sensitive Australian dollar at 95.75.

The euro bounced back against the U.S. dollar to fetch $1.3773 even as softer-than-forecast inflation numbers put more pressure on the European Central Bank to act against the threat of deflation.

Euro zone inflation dropped to 0.5 percent in March, its lowest level since November 2009, having been in the ECB's "danger zone" of below 1 percent for six consecutive months.

However, not many market players expect the ECB to act at its policy meeting on Thursday, partly because of comments from ECB council member and Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann on Saturday.

Weidmann said that the euro zone is not in a deflationary cycle and that the ECB should not overreact to a slowdown in inflation caused largely by cyclical factors which should prove temporary.

Crude futures were off three-week highs following news Russia was withdrawing some troops on the Ukrainian border. U.S. crude futures stood at $101.41, off Friday's high of $102.24.

(Editing by Shri Navaratnam)