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Asia stocks flat as US return from holiday awaited

Pamela Sampson, AP Business Writer

BANGKOK (AP) -- Asian stock markets displayed tread water Tuesday in the absence of cues from Wall Street following a holiday in the U.S.

In Japan, investors went for profits following Monday's strong gains. The Nikkei 225 index fell 0.3 percent to 11,370.40. South Korea's Kospi rose 0.1 percent to 1,982.95. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 added 0.2 percent to 5,073.90.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng index was down 0.3 percent to 23,317.15, as traders cashed in shares that have posted sizeable gains in recent weeks, such as gambling stocks. Sands China plunged 4.4 percent. SJM Holdings plunged 4.9 percent.

"Markets already had very strong cumulative gains, so in the absence of an incentive, the market seems to be undergoing a correction or consolidation," said Kwong Man Bun, the chief operating officer at KGI Securities in Hong Kong.

Some investors remained on the sidelines, waiting for Japan to announce the next head of its central bank to replace Bank of Japan Gov. Masaaki Shirikawa, who will leave the post in April. Analysts at DBS Bank in Singapore said they expect an announcement before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets President Barack Obama on Feb. 22 in Washington.

Abe, elected on promises of bold action to ignite the moribund Japanese economy, is likely to appoint someone with views in line with the program he is championing. One element of the program includes a target of 2 percent inflation to reverse two decades of falling prices, which hurts growth. He also favors a weaker yen.

Japanese stocks have soared in recent weeks as the yen has fallen in anticipation of steps that would push the currency lower.

In mainland China, meanwhile, retail sales during the Lunar Year Holiday last week grew by 14.7 percent, a slowdown from 16.2 percent growth in the same period last year. The Chinese government also said food and beverage sales grew moderately.

"The moderate growth likely reflects the government's drive to reduce lavish government receptions and banquets, as high-end food and liquor registered sales decline," said analysts at Citi Research in Hong Kong.

SCMP Group plunged 5.6 percent after the publisher of the struggling South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's main English-language newspaper, said it's considering buying a media company.

Jewelry sales rose sharply because Valentine's Day fell during the Chinese New Year, analysts said. Emperor Watch & Jewellry added 1.1 percent.

Benchmark oil for March delivery was down 31 cents to $95.55 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

In currencies, the euro fell to $1.3352 from $1.3358 late Monday in Asia. The dollar fell to 93.62 yen from 94.05 yen.


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