Asian Stocks Fall Monday

HONG KONG (AP) -- Asian shares fell Monday as investors evaluated Beijing's annual growth forecast for the Chinese economy while the uncertain outcome of Italian elections weighed on sentiment.

KEEPING SCORE: Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 index lost 0.7 percent to 21,042.09 and South Korea's Kospi slipped 1.1 percent to 2,376.31. Hong Kong's Hang Seng slid 1.5 percent to 30,127.38 and the Shanghai Composite in mainland China dipped 0.1 percent to 3,250.35. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 fell 0.6 percent to 5,895.00. Benchmarks in Taiwan and Southeast Asia also lost ground.

CHINA CONGRESS: Beijing set an annual growth target for the world's No. 2 economy of "around 6.5 percent" for 2018. The number, announced by Premier Li Keqiang at the opening of a legislative session, is down from the 6.9 percent expansion recorded last year, but would still be among the world's strongest rates if achieved. Li also detailed in his report to the ceremonial National People's Congress plans to forge ahead with an overhaul of state industry, ramp up military spending and pursue advanced technology.

SERVICES SURVEY: A survey showed that activity in China's services industry cooled slightly last month but remained solidly in expansion mode. Caixin's general services purchasing managers' index dipped to 54.2 in February from 54.7 the previous month, on a 100-point scale on which numbers above 50 signify expansion.

ITALIAN VOTE: Projections showed no single party or bloc emerged from Sunday's election with enough support to win a majority in Parliament, setting the stage for an extended period of political uncertainty. The forecasts showed a center-right coalition that includes an anti-migrant party took a slight lead over the populist 5-Star Movement but neither were close to the threshold needed to form a government. Rival anti-Europe parties garnered more than half the vote, a result that's likely to unsettle the European Union and possibly financial markets.

QUOTEWORTHY: "The messy Italian election result adds a bit to the nervousness around global equity markets at present," said Shane Oliver, head of investment strategy at AMP Capital in Sydney.

WALL STREET: Major U.S. benchmarks ended mostly higher on Friday. The S&P 500 ended 0.5 percent higher at 2,691.25 while the Dow Jones industrial average fell 0.3 percent to 24,538.06. The Nasdaq composite rose 1.1 percent to 7,257.87.

CURRENCIES: The dollar fell to a fresh 17-month low, weakening to 105.54 Japanese yen from 105.74 late Friday. The euro slipped to $1.2303 from $1.2320.

ENERGY: Oil futures extended their rally. Benchmark U.S. crude rose 19 cents to $61.44 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange in New York. The contract rose 26 cents to settle at $61.25 per barrel on Friday. Brent crude, the international standard, rose 17 cents to $64.54 a barrel.

(BE)