Asian shares and the British pound rose on Thursday ahead of the Christmas break, as Britain and the European Union closed in on a free-trade deal and investors placed bets on global economic recovery prospects. MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan rose 0.14%. Australian stocks advanced by 0.57%, while Tokyo shares rose 0.43%. Chinese stocks rose 0.02%, but Alibaba Group Holding Ltd slumped 6.28%, its biggest daily drop in six weeks, after China’s market regulator said it will investigate the tech giant for suspected monopolistic behaviour. US stock futures edged up by 0.11%. Investors cheered news that Britain and the European Union were on the cusp of striking a narrow trade deal on Thursday, which would help avoid shipping and travel chaos on both sides of the English Channel. Hopes for more fiscal spending and expectations that coronavirus vaccines will become more available next year also supported global equities. “A pro-risk and weak dollar theme dominated markets on optimism regarding vaccines, US and UK fiscal stimulus, and Brexit, with hope an agreement on the latter can be reached before Christmas,” ANZ Bank analysts wrote in a research memo. The potential for a Brexit deal boosted sterling, which rose 0.3% to $1.3535. The pound held steady at 90.20 pence per euro. The pound also drew support after France lifted its ban on freight coming from Britain, which it had enacted in response to a more contagious coronavirus variant in Britain. MSCI’s gauge of global stocks was up 0.1%, but moves were subdued in thin holiday trading. Alibaba, co-founded by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, was the stock to watch in Asia on Thursday as Chinese authorities stepped up their campaign against big technology companies. Separately, Ant Group, the mobile payments and consumer credit arm of Ma’s tech empire, said it will comply with all regulatory requirements after China’s financial watchdogs said they will conduct regulatory talks with it in the next few days. Last month, China halted Ant Group’s $37 billion dual-listing initial public offering, crushing what would have been the world’s largest stock market debut. Wall Street ended mostly higher on Wednesday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average closing up 0.38% and the S&P 500 edging 0.07% higher. The Nasdaq Composite declined 0.29%. A raft of mixed US economic data showed lower jobless claims and an uptick in new orders for durable goods, but also a pullback in consumer spending, falling personal income and fading sentiment as the holiday shopping season nears its end amid a resurgent pandemic. Investors largely shrugged off comments by US President Donald Trump that a nearly $900 billion stimulus bill, agreed upon after months of wrangling in Congress, was “a disgrace” that he might not sign. “Risk-on sentiment is guiding markets so far today and it appears to be weighted more toward possible optimism toward a Brexit deal and the cherry-picked parts of US releases, rather than Trump’s reckless antics over signing the stimulus and funding bill,” said Derek Holt, head of capital markets Economics at Scotiabank. US West Texas Intermediate crude futures rose 18 cents to $48.30 a barrel by 0124 GMT, while Brent crude futures climbed 20 cents to $51.40, buoyed by a drawdown in US stockpiles and a potential Brexit trade deal.