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Asian shares higher despite growing impact of China virus

ELAINE KURTENBACH
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South Korea Financial Markets

A currency trader watches monitors at the foreign exchange dealing room of the KEB Hana Bank headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. Asian shares are mostly higher as health authorities around the world move to monitor and contain a deadly virus outbreak in China and keep it from spreading globally. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

BANGKOK (AP) — Asian shares were mostly higher Thursday as health authorities around the world moved to monitor and contain a deadly virus outbreak in China and keep it from spreading globally.

China and other nations have ramped up screenings for fever on aircraft and at airports in measures that appeared to reassure investors. The central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus is concentrated, closed down its train station and airport Thursday to prevent people from entering or leaving the city.

Japan's Nikkei 225 index rose 0.7% to 24,031.35 while the Kospi in South Korea surged 1.2% to 2,267.25. In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng jumped 1.3% to 28,341.04. Australia's S&P ASX/200 picked up 0.9% to 7,132.70. Shares fell in India, Jakarta and Malaysia but rose in Taiwan and Singapore.

Japan reported Thursday that its trade balance was negative in 2019 for a second straight year, as China-U.S. trade tensions and friction with neighboring South Korea bit into exports.

Overnight, technology companies led stocks to a flat close on Wall Street, erasing early gains. But that was an improvement over Tuesday, when investors dumped shares on fears the outbreak might spread, hurting tourism and ultimately economic growth and corporate profits.

The coronavirus has been confirmed in five countries, including China, the U.S., Thailand, Japan and South Korea. So far, China has confirmed more than 500 people have fallen sick and 17 have died from the illness, which can cause pneumonia and other severe respiratory symptoms.

The S&P 500 index rose 0.1% to 3,321.75 after gaining as much as 0.5% earlier in the day. The Dow Jones Industrial Average reversed an early gain, edging less than 0.1% lower to 29,186.27.

The Nasdaq composite gained 0.1% to 9,383.77, while the Russell 2000 index of smaller company stocks slipped 0.1% to 1,684.46.

Bond prices fell. The 10-year Treasury yield slipped to 1.75% from 1.77% late Wednesday.

A World Health Organization committee was scheduled to meet for a second day Thursday as it decides whether to declare the outbreak a global health emergency.

“As far as the market is concerned, the current reaction remains mild and perhaps rightly so given the difficulty to estimate the impact of an evolving syndrome," Jingyi Pan of IG said in a commentary. By postponing a decision on whether the virus is a global health emergency, the WHO helped assuage some fears the crisis is escalating, she said.

While only about 10% of S&P 500 companies have reported their results for the last three months of 2019, early indications are encouraging. Of those companies that have reported results, 78.4% topped analysts’ forecasts for profits, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Those forecasts were low, to be sure, with analysts saying S&P 500 profits fell last quarter for the fourth consecutive time, according to FactSet.

Traders also bid up shares in homebuilders Wednesday following new data showing that U.S. home sales climbed 3.6% last month. The National Association of Realtors said that sales of previously occupied homes rose in December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.54 million.

For all of 2019, 5.34 million homes were sold — matching the 2018 level. High mortgage rates hurt sales in the first half of the last year, while lower rates boosted purchases in the second half. Hovnanian Enterprises led the home builder rally, gaining 2.5%.

Investors continued to drive Tesla shares higher. The electric vehicle and solar panel maker climbed 4.1%, attaining a $100 billion market capitalization for the first time. That market cap could turn into a supercharged payday for CEO Elon Musk, enabling him to receive a stock option package that’s worth close to $400 million.

Benchmark crude oil fell 93 cents to $55.81 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It lost $1.64 to settle at $56.74 a barrel on Wednesday. Brent crude oil, the international standard, gave up 88 cents to $62.33 per barrel. It slid $1.38 to close at $63.21 a barrel overnight.

Gold rose $1.20 to $1,557.90 per ounce, silver lost 5 cents to $17.78 per ounce and copper fell 3 cents to $2.77 per pound.

The dollar rose to 109.62 Japanese yen from 109.83 yen on Wednesday. The euro weakened to $1.1086 from $1.1097.

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AP Business writers Alex Veiga and Damian J. Troise contributed.