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Asia stocks rise as China manufacturing improves

Pamela Sampson, AP Business Writer

BANGKOK (AP) -- Asian stock markets edged higher Thursday as Chinese manufacturing improved for the third month in a row in a sign of renewed strength in the global economy.

Japan's Nikkei 225 index added 0.4 percent to 9,757.20. Benchmarks in Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, New Zealand and the Philippines also rose.

But Hong Kong's Hang Seng fell 0.5 percent to 21,569.71 as property shares faced a pounding. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 fell 0.7 percent to 4,268.90 after falling metals prices caused its materials shares to slump. Markets in South Korea were closed for a public holiday.

China's state-affiliated Federation of Logistics and Purchasing said its purchasing managers index, or PMI, rose 0.5 points to 51.0 in February, the third straight month of steady improvement and its strongest reading since June 2011.

The federation said export orders expanded for the first time since August, amid recent improvement in the U.S. economy and some signs of stabilization in Europe despite its debt crisis.

In New York on Wednesday, stocks opened higher after the government said that the economy grew faster at the end of last year than previously estimated — at a 3 percent annual rate, which was the best reading since the spring of 2010.

But stocks turned negative after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testified before lawmakers that the economy performed better than expected in recent months, making it appear less likely that the Fed will begin another round of bond-buying to juice the economy.

The dollar soared and precious metals plunged after Bernanke's remarks. Investors tend to buy the metals as insurance against a weak dollar and against inflation. Bernanke's remarks suggested that both of those scenarios were less likely.

"No one person has more ability to move global financial markets than the US Federal Reserve Chairman. And so it was the case last night with Ben Bernanke speaking before the House Financial Services Committee in Washington," Cameron Peacock, market analyst with IG Markets in Melbourne, Australia said in an email.

"The ramifications for the commodity complex were also significant, with base metals selling off sharply, oil continuing its pullback from recent highs and gold getting slammed," he said.

Gold plunged $77 per ounce Wednesday, the biggest one-day drop since September, as traders dialed back their expectations that the dollar would be weakened by another round of economic stimulus from the Fed.

Lower metals prices hurt Australia's mining stocks. BHP Billiton Ltd. fell 1 percent. Rival Rio Tinto Ltd. dropped 1.5 percent. Newcrest Mining Ltd. shed 2.6 percent.

Benchmark oil for April delivery was up 1 cent to $107.08 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 52 cents to settle at $107.07 a barrel on the Nymex on Wednesday.

In currency trading, the dollar fell to 81.12 yen from 81.18 yen late Wednesday in New York. The euro fell slightly to $1.3333 from $1.3337.