Asia stocks inch higher despite world woes

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 24, 2011; 1:31 AM

BANGKOK -- Most Asian markets took cues from Wall Street on Thursday and edged higher despite serious challenges to the global economy, including Japan's struggle to contain an earthquake-spawned nuclear crisis, Portugal's unresolved financial problems and uprisings in the Middle East.

Crude prices fell from a two-year high but remained above $105 a barrel, with traders on edge amid an unprecedented wave of protests and uprisings in the oil-rich Arab world.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng was up 0.8 percent to 22,998.79. South Korea's Kospi added 0.8 percent to 2,027.55. Shares in mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, and New Zealand also posted gains.

Australia's S&P/ASX 200 index rose 0.8 percent to 4,690.30, with mining shares rising on expectations of robust demand for metals from emerging markets - and Japan, once rebuilding of its quake-devastated northeastern coast starts. BHP Billiton Ltd. was up 0.9 percent and Rio Tinto Ltd. gained 1 percent.

The Nikkei 225 slipped 0.1 percent to 9,441.05, a day after Japan's government put the damage estimate from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami at $309 billion. It now ranks as the most expensive natural disaster on record.

Still, investors pushed construction-linked shares higher, expecting those companies to benefit once Japan begins rebuilding. Komatsu Ltd. rose 1.6 percent after it announced that production was resuming in affected areas. Taiheiyo Cement Corp. jumped 5.2 percent. Nishimatsu Construction Co. Ltd. was 1.4 percent higher.

Simon Wong, a regional economist at Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong, said sentiment in Asia was rising as some Japanese factories hobbled by the country's earthquake were resuming production.

"Part of Japanese industry is resuming operations - that is a clearly good news for the region as a whole. Across Asia, there has been a fear that the stoppage in Japanese factories may lead to a disruption in the regional supply chain," Wong said.

The disaster killed more than 18,000 people, caused extensive damage to roads, utilities and businesses and wracked the Fukushimi Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which has leaked radiation since the tsunami engulfed its crucial cooling systems.

While a complete nuclear meltdown was avoided, a myriad of factors weighed on sentiment: the impact on Japanese companies from rolling electricity blackouts, the possibility of aftershocks, anxiety over elevated levels of radioactive iodine in Tokyo's tap water, and import bans on Japanese food products from the region affected by radiation.

Toyota Motor Corp., the world's biggest automaker, said Thursday it expects to halt production at some of its factories in North America due to shortages of parts. Its shares slumped 2.1 percent. Rival Honda Motor Co. was down 2.1 percent after the company announced earlier in the week that a suspension of production at two auto factories and a motorcycle plant will last through Sunday. Nissan Motor Corp. slid 3.8 percent.

Japan's iconic auto industry was hit particularly hard because the country's quake-stricken industrial northeast is a major center for auto parts production.

Elsewhere, Europe's debt crisis showed signs of flaring anew. Portugal's prime minister quit on Wednesday after opposition parties overwhelmingly rejected his last-ditch round of austerity measures aimed at preventing the eurozone's weakest economy from plunging into chaos.

On Wall Street, indexes had been lower early Wednesday but rallied after an Energy Department report showed that gasoline consumption continued to grow despite sharp price increases at the pump - possibly a positive sign, since gasoline usage translates into consumer activity that is vital for the country's economic recovery.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 0.6 percent to 12,086. The S&P 500 index edged up 0.3 percent to close at 1,298, and the Nasdaq rose 0.5 percent to 2,698.

Benchmark crude for May delivery was down 27 cents to $105.48 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract added 78 cents to settle at $105.75, the highest since Sept. 26, 2008, on Wednesday.

Oil has jumped 24 percent since Feb. 14 as violent protests rock the Middle East and North Africa and traders worry about possible crude supply disruptions. In Libya, fighting between rebels and government forces has halted most of the country's 1.6 million barrels a day of crude production.

Investors expect that the international military intervention launched to halt Libya's leader crackdown will likely prolong the shutdown of oil output from the OPEC nation.

In currencies, the euro rose to $1.4082 from $1.4123 late Wednesday. The dollar rose to 80.99 yen from 80.86 yen.

© 2011 The Associated Press