BANGKOK — Asian stock markets were tempered Wednesday by fears that political gridlock in Washington over the federal budget might shut down the U.S. government.
The government will reach its borrowing limit, or debt ceiling, by Oct. 1. If Congress doesn't raise that limit, the government won't be able to pay all its bills. That leaves just days for the White House and Republican lawmakers, who disagree sharply on spending cuts and other key budget issues, to reach a compromise.
Republicans are demanding that any increase must result in expenditure cuts of an equal amount. President Barack Obama is demanding a debt limit increase with no conditions attached.
"With the markets very light in terms of movement, as investors continue to reposition themselves ... it feels almost like they are waiting to be spooked," Evan Lucas, market strategist at IG in Melbourne, Australia, said in a market commentary.
Japan's Nikkei 225 index fell 0.4 percent to 14,674.65. Hong Kong's Hang Seng rose 0.3 percent to 23,246.85. South Korea's Kospi lost 0.5 percent to 1,997.39. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 advanced 0.9 percent to 5,281.40.
Investors also will be monitoring comments from U.S. Federal Reserve officials to see when the central bank will begin to reduce its monetary stimulus.
Last week's unexpected decision by the Fed to refrain from reducing its $85 billion in monthly asset purchases was initially cheered, particularly in stock and commodity markets, which have grown used to the stimulus over the past few years.
The Fed is, however, still expected to scale back its purchases at one of its upcoming meetings, so "tapering" isn't off the table. Tuesday's data did little to cement expectations of when the Fed may act.
On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average fell for a fourth straight day on Tuesday as investors grappled with mixed economic reports. One report said home prices in July rose the most in more than seven years. Another showed that Americans' confidence in the economy slipped in September.
The Dow fell 0.4 percent to close at 15,334.59 on Tuesday. The Standard & Poor's 500 fell 0.3 percent to 1,697.42. The Nasdaq composite rose 0.3 percent to 3,768.25.
Benchmark oil for November delivery was up 15 cents to $103.28 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell 46 cents to close at $103.13 per barrel on the Nymex on Tuesday.
In currencies, the euro rose to $1.3475 from $1.3470 late Tuesday. The dollar fell to 98.60 yen from 98.70 yen.
Follow Pamela Sampson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/pamelasampson