- Asia markets traded mixed as markets in China, South Korea and Hong Kong were shut for public holidays
- The dollar index was off from earlier highs of about 93.600
- Australian retail sales for August fell unexpectedly, but the country's trade surplus for the same month shot past expectations
Asia markets traded mixed on Thursday, with some Australian retailers faltering after lower-than-expected sales data showed consumers Down Under were cutting back.
The country's retail turnover fell 0.6 percent in August, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed, coming in short of a Reuters poll forecasting a rise of 0.3 percent. That was the worst decline in sales since early 2013, Reuters said.
There were declines in food retailing, cafes, restaurants and takeaway food services, household goods and clothing, footwear and personal accessories. Sectors that saw an increase included department stores.
July's retail sales figure was also revised down to 0.2 percent fall.
"The big question for the outlook is why retail sales as a whole fell in August," Tapas Strickland, an economist at the National Australia Bank (NAB), wrote in a note. "NAB's transaction data suggested this, however there was no obvious macro events to explain such weakness."
Strickland added it was possible that higher energy prices and "warnings that the next move in interest rates is likely to be up" could have played a role in decline.
"Overall, the trend in retail is likely to remain subdued until wages begin to strengthen given debt levels and a hesitant consumer, while online retail will continue to challenge bricks and mortar retailers," Strickland said.
Australian retail stocks were mixed following the data, with Myer shares closing down 1.3 percent, Harvey Norman off 0.52 percent and JB Hi-Fi down 0.74 percent. Shares of of Metcash rose 1.63 percent, Wesfarmers added 0.32 percent and Woolworths gained 0.53 percent.
The broader benchmark ASX 200 finished flat at 5,651.8. The heavily-weighted financial sector slipped fractionally, down 0.2 percent. Shares of the so-called Big Four banks were lower: ANZ was down 0.51 percent, Commonwealth Bank was down 0.11 percent, Westpac was off by 0.44 percent and National Australia Bank declined 0.45 percent.
On a more positive note Down Under, Australian trade recorded a seasonally adjusted surplus of 989 million Australian dollars ($774.81 million) in August, topping a Reuters market forecast of A$875 million.
"The improvement in the trade balance was driven by a solid rise in the value of exports — up 0.5 percent (on-month) in August — with stronger exports of metal ores and minerals ... and a solid pickup in export services driving the gains," said economists Giulia Specchia and Daniel Gradwell from ANZ in a note.
The Australian dollar slipped from as high as $0.7865 to as low as $0.7816 following the data release, but it then recovered slightly. At 2:41 p.m. HK/SIN, the Aussie traded at $0.7824.
Elsewhere, Japan's gave up slight early gains to close nearly flat at 20,628.56, while the Topix index finished down 2.07 points, or 0.12 percent, at 1,682.49. Elsewhere, India's Nifty 50 was down 0.18 percent in the afternoon, while Singapore's Straits Times Index rose 0.77 percent.
The session in Asia followed a record-high close for U.S. equities overnight. Markets in China, Hong Kong and South Korea are shut for public holidays.
"It seems markets are treading water ahead of [U.S. nonfarm] payrolls on Friday given more than usual uncertainty over the numbers due to possible hurricane effects," NAB's Strickland wrote in an earlier note about the overnight session in the U.S.
The dollar index traded at 93.554 against a basket of currencies, climbing from levels near 93.25 previously. The greenback was still off from levels above 93.600 reached earlier in the week.
"Stronger than expected U.S. data helped the greenback shake off its initial weakness to end the New York trading session much closer to its highs than lows," Kathy Lien, managing director of foreign exchange strategy at BK Asset Management, said in an early-morning note. Lien added that the greenback "should actually be trading much higher given the unexpected strength of the non-manufacturing ISM report."
The Indian rupee last traded at 65.16 to the dollar, off an earlier high of 65.06, after the Reserve Bank of India held rates steady on Wednesday, which was largely in line with expectations. The central bank, however, reduced India's growth outlook for fiscal 2018 from 7.3 percent to 6.7 percent.
Morgan Stanley analysts said in a note that it was unlikely the central bank would "take up any further easing measures."
"This has been reaffirmed by the [Monetary Policy Committee] statement, which highlighted an inflation trajectory that is expected to rise above the central bank's target," the analysts wrote.
Meanwhile, oil prices traded lower on Thursday afternoon Asia time. U.S. crude was below the psychologically key $50 mark, trading down 0.14 percent at $49.91 a barrel. Global benchmark Brent was down 0.09 percent at $55.75.
Along with de-facto OPEC leader Saudi Arabia, Russia made waves last year when it agreed — alongside OPEC — to cut output to stabilize and support prices. In June 2017, the oil producers agreed to extend those cuts until March 2018.
— CNBC's Huileng Tan and Geoff Cutmore contributed to this report.