Asia stocks eke out gains in afternoon trade

Asian equities bounced back in afternoon trade after having a mixed but volatile reaction to a slew of key Chinese data, even though the numbers were mostly in line with expectations.

Chinese stocks jumped in late trade, with the Shanghai composite closing up 94.70 points, or 3.25 percent, at 3,008.53. The smaller Shenzhen composite closed up 65.42 points, or 3.57 percent, at 1,895.74.

China GDP grew 6.8% in Q4

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China's gross domestic product (GDP) data for 2015 was in line with a Reuters poll of expectations, though factory output and retail sales dipped slightly below forecasts.

The world's second-largest economy grew by 6.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2014, slipping from the third quarter's 6.9 percent growth. This was in line with the median forecast in a Reuters poll.

Full-year growth came in at 6.9 percent, down from 2014's 7.3 percent, and the slowest pace of economic expansion since 1990.

Industrial output for December rose 5.9 percent on-year, missing a Reuters poll forecast for a 6.0 percent increase. Full-year industrial output rose 6.1 percent on-year.

Retail sales also fell slightly short of expectations for December, climbing 11.1 percent on-year, compared with a forecast for 11.3 percent and slightly weaker than November's 11.2 percent rise.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng index closed up 398.36 points, or 2.07 percent, at 19,635.81 in a late round of buy-ins in the afternoon.

Before market open, the People's Bank of China (PBOC) fixed its dollar-yuan mid-point at 6.5596, keeping it stable following the previous session's fix of 6.5590.

Tomohiro Ohsumi | Getty Images

In Japan, the Nikkei 225 wavered between gains and losses throughout the session before closing up 92.80 points, or 0.55 percent, at 17,048.37. At yesterday's close, the index was down some 18.74 percent from its 52-week high of 20,868.03, set in June 2015.

Japanese economics minister Akira Amari said the recent sell-off in Japanese equities was due to external factors such as worries over emerging markets and declines in oil prices, and that Japan's economic fundamentals remained solid, according to Reuters.

The dollar-yen pair traded 0.15 percent higher at 117.73 from the previous session's close of 117.31. This likely helped boost some major export stocks such Nissan, Sharp, Toyota and Sony, which all closed between 0.92 and 2.44 percent higher. A weaker yen is usually considered positive for Japan's exporters as it flatters earnings when translated back into the home currency.

South Korea's Kospi erased losses to close 11.19 points, or 0.60 percent, higher at 1,889.64. Korean blue chips finished mixed, with shares of Samsung Electronics up 4 percent, Posco up 0.30 percent and Hyundai Motor up by 0.72 percent.

Australia's ASX 200 extended gains in late-afternoon trade to close in positive territory, up 44.39 points, or 0.91 percent, at 4,903.10.

Earlier, the index was weighed by the energy sector, which eventually closed 0.95 percent lower. At yesterday's close, the ASX 200 had lost 18.78 percent since its 52-week high of 5,982.69, set in April 2015, pushing it near bear market territory.

Resources stocks were resilient, with Rio Tinto finishing up 0.34 percent, after being down as much as 0.59 percent in early trade, and BHP Billiton closing up 0.68 percent. Other iron ore producers such as Fortescue pared gains to close down 1.61 percent.

Rio Tinto said it planned to increase iron ore production and shipments in 2016, despite multi-year-low iron-ore prices. The mining giant increased 2015 annual iron ore shipments by 11 percent, roughly in line with its guidance of 340 million tonnes. Iron ore traded at $41.90 a ton.

Other Asian markets had a mixed reaction to the Chinese data. Singapore's Straits Times index was up 0.28 percent before retracing gains and then surging up 1.53 percent in late afternoon; Indonesia's Jakarta composite eked out a gain of 0.15 percent before slipping 0.23 percent and then trading flat; Taiwan's Taiex was initially flat but closed up 0.56 percent.

U.S. futures reacted positively to the Chinese data, with the S&P 500 up 0.67 percent, Nasdaq futures up 0.42 percent, and the Dow futures up 0.56 percent. Since then, all three futures eked out further gains, up between 1.39 and 1.51 percent.

Oil prices remained under pressure from Iran's re-entry into the global supply market after international sanctions on the country were lifted at the weekend.

During Asian trade, U.S. crude futures traded 0.85 percent higher at $29.67 a barrel, after hitting a 2003 low of $28.36 overnight. Globally traded Brent futures were up 2.73 percent at $29.35 a barrel, after falling to $28.64 a barrel in the overnight session.

Energy plays in Australia were mostly down. Santos retracing early losses to close up 1.90 percent but Oil Search remained down 4.16 percent and Woodside Petroleum shed 0.68 percent.

In Japan, oil stocks closed mostly up with Inpex gaining 1.21 percent and Japan Petroleum up 1.19 percent. Cosmo Oil, however, was down 1.17 percent. Reports said the oil company purchased a U.S. crude oil cargo, about 300,000 barrels, making it the first purchase by a Japanese buyer since a four-decade ban on most U.S. crude exports ended.

South Korean energy stocks such as S-Oil, SK Innovation and GS Holdings were down between 0.21 and 1.89 percent.

Oil plays in mainland China, such as China Petroleum, PetroChina, and China Oilfield ended up between 2.06 and 3.15 percent. Hong Kong listed shares of CNOOC, PetroChina, and Sinopec closed up between 3.73 and 4.90 percent.

Angus Nicholson, market analyst at spreadbetter IG, said in his morning note that with the lifting of sanctions, "oil is now suffering its most intense period of price pressures."

Though a global supply glut exists, Nicholson said "the more pressing question for the oil price will be the pace at which Iranian oil production picks up," after Iranian officials said they were determined to increase production.

Wall Street was closed overnight for the Martin Luther King Day holiday.

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