LONDON The mood in financial markets was cautious Wednesday following weak Chinese trade figures and ahead of the publication of the minutes to the last policy meeting of the U.S. Federal Reserve, which may provide clues to when the central bank will start reining in its monetary stimulus.
In a new sign of weakness in the world's second-largest economy,, customs data showed Wednesday.
The figures fed into perceptions that China's economic expansion is slowing due to weak global demand and an effort by the Chinese central bank to cool a credit boom. The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday scaled back its China 2013 growth forecast to 7.8 percent from 8.1 percent.
"Investor sentiment has been unsettled today by the far worse than expected trade data from China," said Derek Halpenny, an analyst at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ.
In Europe, the FTSE 100 index of leading British shares was down 0.4 percent at 6,487 while Germany's DAX fell 0.3 percent to 8,033. The CAC-40 in France was 0.4 percent lower at 3,830.
Wall Street was poised for a similarly subdued opening later, with Dow futures down 0.1 percent and the broader S&P 500 futures 0.2 percent lower.
The focus later will be on the Fed minutes as well as a speech from Fed chairman Ben Bernanke.
For the past few days, markets have been fairly solid in a sign that investor concerns over the change in course in U.S. monetary policy may have abated.
As part of its latest stimulus to the U.S. economy, the Fed has been buying $85 billion of financial assets a month to keep interest rates low and encourage borrowing and spending. That stimulus has been a major factor in driving global stocks higher, so the prospect of it being tapered has caused market volatility in recent weeks. Recently, however, investors have been focusing more on improvements in the U.S. economy.
"Judging by the recent price action from equity markets around the world it would seem that investors are becoming comfortable with the idea of possible Fed tapering in the coming months," said Michael Hewson, senior market analyst at CMC Markets.
The dollar's fate over the coming period may well rest on the path of Fed policy. Ahead of the minutes, it was trading softly, with the euro 0.3 percent higher at $1.2820 and the dollar 1 percent down at 100.14 yen.
Earlier in Asia, China's Shanghai Composite Index had a solid day, ending 2.2 percent higher to 2,008.13 despite the trade figures as investors bought up some beaten down stocks following two days of losses. The smaller Shenzhen Composite Index gained 2.9 percent to 918.40.
Elsewhere in Asia, Tokyo's Nikkei 225 index was down 0.4 percent to 14,416.60 as the yen recovered some recent losses and Hong Kong's Hang Seng gained 1.1 percent to 20,904.56.
Meanwhile, oil prices edged up towards their highest levels in over a year - the benchmark New York rate was up $1.12 to $104.65 a barrel.