Asian stocks mixed ahead of US economic data

Asia stock markets mixed ahead of US data expected to show economy continuing to improve

Associated Press
Elevated oil prices weighing on markets

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BANGKOK (AP) -- Asian stock markets were mixed Monday as high oil prices dampened enthusiasm for riskier assets like stocks ahead of the release of data likely to show that the U.S. economy is improving at a slow but steady clip.

Benchmark oil remained near $109 per barrel while the dollar rose against the euro and the yen.

Japan's Nikkei 225 index was 0.5 percent higher at 9,698.99 after briefly touching 9,736.11, the highest midday mark since Aug. 4.

Hong Kong's Hang added 0.3 percent to 21,479.11. Benchmarks in mainland China and Singapore also rose. But South Korea's Kospi lost 1.2 percent to 1,995.12. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 dropped 0.6 percent to 4,279.80.

U.S. consumer confidence figures to be released Tuesday and the Federal Reserve's so-called Beige Book report on economic activity due Wednesday are likely to show improvement, analysts said.

Credit Agricole CIB in Hong Kong said in an email that "economic data over coming days will likely prove encouraging, with more signs of ongoing economic recovery in the US in particular."

Japanese export stocks benefited as the yen continued to weaken following the Bank of Japan's surprise increase to its economic stimulus program two weeks ago. Sharp Corp. jumped 4.4 percent, Ricoh Co. bounded 4.1 percent and Hitachi Ltd. added 3 percent.

In Australia, sentiment was hurt by higher oil prices and a strong currency, said Ric Spooner, chief market analyst at CMC Markets in Sydney.

"The Australian consumer has to contend with the general impact of the higher Australian dollar, which is causing some nervousness to employment security and job security in some parts of the economy," he said.

The higher Aussie dollar makes raises the cost of products sold abroad, hurting manufacturing exporters. Higher oil prices force motorists to spend more at the gas pump, which could dent discretionary spending.

Among Australian shares, Billabong International Ltd. jumped 3.8 percent after the struggling surf wear retailer rejected a takeover offer from buyout company TPG Capital but said it would continue talks.

Banking stocks fell following downgrades Friday by the Fitch ratings agency. Commonwealth Bank of Australia lost 0.7 percent, Westpac Banking shed 0.7 percent and National Australia Bank was down by less than 0.1 percent.

Higher oil prices translate into higher fuel costs for airlines, which are already struggling with weak global demand. That is hurting aviation stocks such as Korean Air Lines Co., down 4.6 percent. Hong Kong-listed Air China Ltd. tumbled 3.4 percent.

On Wall Street on Friday, the Dow Jones industrial average flitted above 13,000 for a second day last week before settling marginally lower at 12,982.95. The average hasn't closed above 13,000 since May 19, 2008. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 0.2 percent to 1,365.74. The Nasdaq composite index rose or 0.2 percent to 2,963.75.

U.S. stock indexes have been climbing since November as European officials redoubled their efforts to contain the region's debt crisis.

Greece on Friday made a formal offer to creditors to swap their Greek government bonds for new ones in another step toward knocking 107 billion euros ($142 billion) off its debts. The swap is part of a deal to prevent Greece from defaulting on a debt payment due next month.

The Greek Finance Ministry issued the formal offer to banks and other investment funds under which creditors are called on to accept losses of more than half the face value of the bonds they hold in return for new bonds with longer maturities.

Benchmark oil for April delivery was down 25 cents to $109.52 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose by $1.94 to finish at $109.77 per barrel on the Nymex on Friday.

In currencies, the euro fell to $1.3447 from $1.3466 late Friday in New York. The dollar rose to 81.12 yen from 80.98 yen.

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