Asia stocks weighed down by glum US economic data

Asian stock markets weighed down as US economic data disappoints

Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) -- Asian stock markets fell Friday as strong U.S. company earnings failed to calm investor nerves in the face of economic reports that suggest the world's No. 1 economy is struggling to maintain its recovery.

Tokyo's Nikkei 225 index dropped 0.4 percent to 9,551.41 and Hong Kong's Hang Seng shed 0.3 percent to 20,941. South Korea's Kospi lost 1.4 percent to 1,972.47, with the government saying that exports are likely to face headwinds in the second quarter of the year due to Europe's debt crisis and a slowdown in the Chinese economy.

Australia's S&P/ASX 200 fell 0.1 percent to 4,358.50. Benchmarks in Singapore and Taiwan also fell. Key indexes in mainland China and Thailand rose.

In the U.S., strong corporate earnings from Morgan Stanley, eBay, Southwest Airlines and Bank of America weren't enough to make up for weak reports on jobs, housing and manufacturing.

The Labor Department said weekly applications for unemployment benefits were down 2,000 to 386,000 but anything above 375,000 is generally taken as a sign that hiring isn't strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.

Sales of previously owned homes fell 2.6 percent in March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.48 million. In healthier markets, sales typically are closer to 6 million. The Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank said that manufacturing output in the mid-Atlantic region slowed a bit from the previous month.

All was not lost, however. Software colossus Microsoft produced a surprisingly strong quarter to start the year, and traders speculated that Beijing will soon lower the ratio of deposits that banks must hold as reserves, a move that would boost lending.

"I expect the central bank of China will have another reserve ratio requirement cut by at least 50 basis points as early as the end of April, because on May 1, China's market will be closed for almost a week for a long holiday," said Dickie Wong, executive director of research at Kingston Securities Ltd. in Hong Kong.

Last week, China reported that its first-quarter economic growth was the slowest since the second quarter of 2009. The world's No. 2 economy grew by 8.1 percent in the three months ending in March, down from the previous quarter's 8.9 percent.

In Tokyo trading, Olympus Corp. jumped 5.1 percent as the Japanese camera and medical-equipment maker got shareholder approval for new management after executives behind a cover-up of massive investment losses were forced out.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 0.5 percent to close at 12,964.10. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index dropped 0.6 percent to 1,376.92. The Nasdaq composite fell 0.8 percent to 3,007.56.

In energy trading, benchmark oil for May delivery was up 35 cents to $102.62 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell by 40 cents to end at $102.27 per barrel on the Nymex on Thursday.

The euro rose to $1.3143 from $1.3130 late Thursday in New York. The dollar rose to 81.53 yen from 81.46 yen.

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