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Asian Shares Mostly Higher On Economic Optimism

Asian shares reversed early losses to end mostly higher on Friday as buoyant economic data from the United States and Germany suggested that economic momentum is improving.

Growing hopes of further policy easing measures from major central banks and the approval of a massive bond swap by the Greek Parliament that would help wipe 107 billion euros off the country's privately-held debt also overshadowed concerns about the eurozone economy slipping into a recession.

Meanwhile, investors appear confident that a rise in oil prices would be short-lived. Crude futures for April delivery were last trading up 0.4 percent at $108.29 a barrel, driven higher by escalating tension between Iran and the West and a weakening dollar.

Japan's Nikkei average rose half a percent to its highest closing level since early August as the yen's continued weakness lifted export-related shares. The broader Topix index of all First Section issues on the Tokyo Stock Exchange ended 0.6 percent higher. Nikon gained 0.9 percent, Honda Motor rose 2.7 percent, Sony climbed 3 percent and Ricoh jumped 4.6 percent.

J. Front Retailing, the operator of the Daimaru and Matsuzakaya department stores, gained 1.5 percent on reports it will purchase a 33.2 percent stake in boutique shopping mall operator Parco Co. Oil firm Inpex soared 5.1 percent owing to the rising crude prices. Elpida Memory, the maker of dynamic random access memory (DRAM) chips, slumped 4.9 percent after saying it plans to double its common shares to 800 million to boost capital.

China's Shanghai Composite index rose 1.3 percent to a six-month high, led by coal producers and property developers as a cut in banks' reserve requirements announced by the People's Bank of China on Feb 18 took effect today. Hong Kong's Hang Seng index rose a modest 0.1 percent, as gains in mainland property developers offset weakness in bank shares. On a weekly basis, however, the benchmark snapped a seven-week winning streak.

Australian shares posted modest gains, with banks gaining ground, after Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Glenn Stevens said he doesn't see the signs of the rapid collapse in global demand that was witnessed three years ago. "With growth near trend, inflation consistent with the target, interest rates about average and an outlook suggesting more of the same, the setting of policy was about right for the moment." Stevens said in his opening statement to House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics.

Both the benchmark S&P/ASX and the broader All Ordinaries index ended up around half a percent each. The big four banks gained between 0.4 percent and 1.3 percent, while investment bank Macquarie Group rose 0.9 percent and insurer Suncorp rallied 2.5 percent. Surfwear retailer Billabong jumped 5.4 percent, extending recent gains following a revised takeover offer from private equity group TPG Capital.

AGL Energy slumped 4.7 percent after the utility reported a 51 percent fall in first-half profit and said it would raise as much as $1.5 billion from the market to take full control of a Victorian power station. Steelmaker BlueScope Steel fell 2.4 percent and OneSteel, which soared early this week on talk of a takeover approach, plunged 10.9 percent. Newcrest tumbled 4.3 percent after the gold miner highlighted maintenance issues at its Lihir mine in Papua.

Seoul shares gained on foreign fund buying as better-than-expected economic data out of the U.S. and Germany bolstered the outlook for exports. Overseas investors resumed buying after recent selling, adding a net 161.3 billion won worth of local shares, data showed. The Kospi average reversed initial losses to end 0.6 percent higher, but posted its first weekly loss this year.

Financial shares paced the gains, with ShinhanGroup, KB Financial and HanaFinancial adding between 0.8 percent and 2.6 percent. Hyundai Motor fell 1.1 percent after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a dismissed worker. Shares of its affiliate Kia Motors slipped 0.3 percent and auto-parts maker Hyundai Mobis lost 1.1 percent.

In economic news, South Korea's consumer confidence strengthened in February, largely due to signs of an improvement in the U.S. economy, a survey carried out by the Bank of Korea showed. The sentiment index returned to the benchmark of 100 from 98 in January, with a reading of 100 suggesting that the number of optimists on the future economy is equal to the number of pessimists.

New Zealand shares slipped marginally, with weak corporate earnings dampening investor sentiment. The benchmark NZX-50 index ended 0.1 percent lower. Air New Zealand tumbled 3.4 percent after the nation's biggest carrier announced a 61 percent slump in its first-half net profit on the back of high fuel costs and an uncertain global economy. Guinness Peat Group plunged 11.5 percent to its lowest level since March 2009 after the investment company posted a 97 percent drop in reported net profit.

Would-be bank Heartland lost 2.2 percent, rubber goods manufacturer Skellerup Holdings shed 1.4 percent and New Zealand Refining ended down 1.2 percent. Telecom gained half a percent after announcing a $300 million share buyback. Electronic component maker Rakon climbed 3.6 percent and logistics firm Freightways rose 2.1 percent. Port of Tauranga advanced 1.3 percent after posting record first-half earnings.

Elsewhere, India's Sensex was last trading down 1.2 percent, hit by concerns that higher oil prices could limit the scope for further monetary easing. Indonesia's Jakarta Composite index lost 1.6 percent, while Malaysia's KLSE Composite edged up 0.1 percent, Singapore's Straits Times was up 0.3 percent and the Taiwan Weighted average rose 0.3 percent.

U.S. stocks posted modest gains overnight, as better-than-expected data on initial jobless claims and signs of stabilization in the housing market helped offset some disappointing earnings news. The Dow and the S&P 500 rose around 0.4 percent each, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq gained 0.8 percent.

by RTTNews Staff Writer

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