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Asian Markets Mostly Higher Amid Cautious Trades

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Asian stock markets are mostly higher on Thursday with modest gains following the positive cues from Wall Street on upbeat corporate earnings results. Nevertheless, investors are cautious amid worries about slowing global economic growth, the ongoing U.S. government shutdown and uncertainty over U.S.-China trade talks.

The Australian market is modestly higher following the positive cues from Wall Street. Upbeat Australian jobs data for the month of December also aided sentiment. Gains by oil stocks were offset by weakness in mining and bank stocks.

The benchmark S&P/ASX 200 Index is adding 10.30 points or 0.18 percent to 5,854.00, just off a high of 5,855.50 earlier. The broader All Ordinaries Index is up 11.10 points or 0.19 percent to 5,919.80. Australian stocks edged lower on Wednesday as global growth concerns pulled down material stocks.

Oil stocks are advancing despite lower crude oil prices. Santos is gaining almost 4 percent, while Oil Search and Woodside Petroleum are adding almost 1 percent each.

Santos reported 2018 full-year production that beat its own production guidance and said it expects 2019 production to increase up to 32 percent.

The major miners are mostly lower. BHP Group is edging down 0.1 percent and Rio Tinto is lower by 0.5 percent, while Fortescue Metals is advancing more than 1 percent.

Oz Minerals reported a more than 1 percent decline in fourth-quarter copper production and said it expects 2019 production to fall further. However, the miner's shares are rising almost 1 percent.

Gold miners are also weak despite a modest increase in gold prices. Evolution Mining is losing more than 5 percent and Newcrest Mining is declining almost 1 percent.

The big four banks are mixed. ANZ Banking is adding 0.2 percent and Commonwealth Bank is up 0.2 percent, while Westpac is edging down 0.1 percent and National Australia Bank is lower by 0.2 percent.

Coles Group said it will make a pre-tax provision of A$146 million in its first-half results for a distribution network overhaul that will cut costs as well as jobs. The supermarket giant's shares are losing almost 2 percent.

In economic news, the Australian Bureau of Statistics said that the jobless rate in Australia came in at a seasonally adjusted 5.0 percent in December. That was below expectations for 5.1 percent, which would have been unchanged from the November reading.

The Australian economy added 21,600 jobs last month - beating forecasts for the addition of 18,000 following the 37,000 jump in the previous month.

In the currency market, the Australian dollar is higher against the U.S. dollar on Thursday. The local currency was quoted at $0.7143, up from $0.7138 on Wednesday.

The Japanese market is declining, as worries about global economic growth and uncertainty over U.S.-China trade talks weighed on the market. Data showing that the manufacturing sector in Japan fell into stagnation in December also dampened sentiment.

The benchmark Nikkei 225 Index is down 46.18 points or 0.22 percent to 20,547.54, after touching a low of 20,467.59 in early trades. Japanese shares fluctuated before finishing slightly lower on Wednesday.

The major exporters are mixed on a stronger yen. Mitsubishi Electric is advancing more than 1 percent and Canon is higher by 0.6 percent, while Sony is declining more than 1 percent and Panasonic is down 0.4 percent.

In the tech sector, Advantest is gaining more than 5 percent and Tokyo Electron is rising more than 3 percent.

Among the major automakers, Honda is edging up 0.1 percent and Toyota is higher by 0.2 percent. In the banking sector, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial are higher by 0.5 percent each.

In the oil space, Japan Petroleum is down almost 1 percent and Inpex is losing 0.6 percent after crude oil prices declined modestly overnight.

The Nikkei business daily reported that Japanese telecom company KDDI Corp. is in talks to invest up to 100 billion yen in Kabu.com Securities, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial. Shares of KDDI Corp. are down 0.4 percent.

Among the other major gainers, Nikon is rising more than 5 percent, Screen Holdings is gaining more than 4 percent and Sumco Corp. is higher by more than 3 percent.

On the flip side, Recruit Holdings is losing more than 3 percent, while Takara
Holdings and Kikkoman are down more than 2 percent each.

On the economic front, the latest survey from Nikkei revealed that the manufacturing sector in Japan fell into stagnation in December, with a manufacturing PMI score of 50.0. That's down from 52.6 in December and it lands right on the line that separates expansion from contraction.

Japan will also see final November numbers for its leading and coincident indexes today.

In the currency market, the U.S. dollar is trading in the mid 109 yen-range on Thursday.

Elsewhere in Asia, Shanghai, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan are all higher, while New Zealand is modestly lower.

On Wall Street, stocks closed higher on Wednesday in a volatile session, with the Dow outperforming its counterparts by a wide margin reflecting a positive reaction to quarterly results from several of the components of the blue chip index. Meanwhile, the volatility by the broader markets came as traders expressed uncertainty about the economic impact of the ongoing U.S. government shutdown.

The Dow climbed 171.14 points or 0.7 percent to 24,575.62, while the Nasdaq crept up 5.41 points or 0.1 percent to 7,025.77 and the S&P 500 inched up 5.80 points or 0.2 percent to 2,638.70.

The major European markets all moved to the downside on Wednesday. While the U.K.'s FTSE 100 Index slumped by 0.9 percent, the German DAX Index and the French CAC 40 Index both dipped by 0.2 percent.

Crude oil prices settled modestly lower on Wednesday. WTI crude for March delivery declined $0.39 or 0.7 percent to close at $52.62 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

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