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Asia stocks gain on uptick in US housing market

Pamela Sampson, AP Business Writer

BANGKOK (AP) -- Asian stocks posted muted gains Tuesday after data showed a slightly improved housing market in the U.S. and oil prices showed signs of softening after a recent surge.

Benchmark oil slipped below $108 per barrel while the dollar fell against the euro and the yen.

The Nikkei 225 index in Tokyo rose 0.2 percent to 9,652.21, battling back from a lower opening a day after struggling computer chipmaker Elpida Memory Inc. filed for bankruptcy — the largest ever for a Japanese manufacturer.

The company, which is the only chipmaker in Japan to specialize in DRAM chips used in mobile phones and computers, has been beset by plummeting prices, fierce competition and flooding in Thailand last year that disrupted production.

Elsewhere, markets took comfort from U.S. data that showed a slowly improving housing market. The National Association of Realtors said its index of sales agreements rose 2 percent last month to a reading of 97, the highest since April 2010. A reading of 100 is considered healthy.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng rose 0.4 percent to 21,302.65 and South Korea's Kospi added 0.5 percent to 1,999.28. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 fell 0.1 percent to 4,263.

Benchmarks in Singapore, India, and New Zealand also rose while the Shanghai Composite Index fell 0.4 percent at 2,437.47.

Investors in Hong Kong exercised caution ahead of a slew of earnings reports from blue chip companies this week, including property developer Sino Land Co., and Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing Ltd., the territory's stock exchange.

"We are still trading on a very low volume, low turnover since we had most of the good news — the U.S. reporting pretty good housing data, which is a positive sign that the economy is still on pace to recover," said Jackson Wong, vice president at Tanrich Securities in Hong Kong.

Shares among Japan's major exporters fell, however, as the yen strengthened, an unwelcome development for companies that count heavily on sales abroad. Mazda Motor Corp. dropped 2.9 percent. Honda Motor Corp. lost 2.4 percent. Nintendo Co. tumbled 3.2 percent.

Meanwhile, Analysts at Credit Agricole CIB in Hong Kong said stock markets are cautious even though U.S. data this week are expected to show improving consumer confidence and economic conditions.

"A plethora of US and eurozone data releases largely focussed on sentiment surveys will maintain a positive message of recovery today but risk assets have already priced in a lot of good news," the bank said in an email.

The European debt crisis remains a lingering concern. Finance ministers from the world's 20 leading economies said that they would not add money to the International Monetary Fund until the European Union puts up more money to stave off its debt crisis.

And although a standoff between the West and Iran over its nuclear program has kept oil prices around nine-month highs, petrol prices began to soften this week after rising 9 percent since mid-February.

Benchmark oil for April delivery was down 61 cents to $107.95 in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell by $1.21 to $108.56 per barrel in New York on Monday.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 0.01 percent to close at 12,981.51 on Monday. The Standard & Poor's 500 index gained 0.1 percent to 1,367.59. The Nasdaq composite gained 0.1 percent to 2,966.16.

The Dow has broken through 13,000 several times last week but hasn't closed above that level since May 19, 2008, four months before the fall of Lehman Brothers investment bank and the worst of the financial crisis.

In currency trading, the euro rose to $1.3426 from $1.3398 late Monday in New York. The dollar fell to 80.18 yen from 80.49 yen.