SINGAPORE -- Asian stocks flatlined on Wednesday as Sino-US trade talks approached a weekend deadline with little sign of progress, while a tightening of the UK election race knocked the pound.
Investors are beginning to suspect that even if US tariffs due to take effect on Sunday are delayed, it may be 2020 before Washington and Beijing can agree a broader rapprochement.
In the absence of detailed trade news, focus moves to the US Fed's outlook for the economy due at 2000 GMT (4 a.m. Thursday in Manila) - along with an expectation interest rates will be held steady - and Thursday's British election.
"The market is just so singularly focused on the trade thematic, it seems to push everything else aside," said James McGlew, executive director of corporate stockbroking at Perth broker Argonaut.
"These things never end well. Tariffs and artificial barriers in economies can never level the playing field the way proponents theorize it will ... no-one wins until this stops, its as simple as that."
MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan barely budged. Japan's Nikkei ticked lower after White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said a decision on the Dec. 15 tariffs would come soon, also knocking modest early gains off Australia's S&P/ASX 200.
The biggest mover of the morning was the British pound, which shed 0.3 percent to hit $1.3128 after a closely watched YouGov poll showed the ruling Conservatives tracking toward a much slimmer majority than forecast a fortnight ago.
The pound had climbed to an eight-month high overnight, before the survey, as investors priced in a comfortable Conservative victory and expected it could end years of uncertainty over Britain's exit from the European Union.
YouGov's research director, however, said the results showed a hung parliament was possible.
"Granted, this still portrays a Tory majority but given what is already priced ... the actual outcome has resulted in some of the heat coming out of a fairly frothy market," said Chris Weston, head of research at Melbourne brokerage Pepperstone.
On the trade front, officials from Canada, Mexico and the United States signed a fresh overhaul of the quarter-century-old North American trade pact, but there were few hints of progress on a deal between the globe's two largest economies.
A Wall Street Journal report that said US and Chinese officials were preparing for a delay to the Dec. 15 round of tariffs knocked bonds but did not shift stocks since it suggested no resolution to the trade conflict.
"Assuming it is (delayed), then trade policy uncertainty is set to linger well into the next decade," said Ray Attrill, head of FX strategy at National Australia Bank.
"This has very much been the emerging consensus heading into the weekend deadline, hence the reports have failed to spark any market volatility."
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow later said that no decision had been reached regarding the tariffs, which will automatically take effect unless they are reversed or suspended.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 each fell 0.1 percent, while the Nasdaq dropped by a little less.
The yield on benchmark 10-year Treasury notes, which moves inversely to price, last stood a little higher at 1.8399 percent.
US inflation data due at 1330 GMT, expected to hold steady, may further decrease the likelihood of 2020 rate cuts should it surprise on the upside.
The Fed is widely expected to hold rates steady at the conclusion of Wednesday's policy meeting, with investors instead focused on any change to the central bank's view of the economy and its 2 percent growth forecast for next year.
Elsewhere in currencies, the dollar slipped against the euro overnight as German economic sentiment sharply rose after an unexpected rebound in October exports.
US crude dipped 0.25 percent to $59.09 a barrel, while gold was slightly lower at $1463.526 per ounce.