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Asian Markets Rally Led by Financials, Tech Stocks

Asian stock indexes made firm gains Thursday, with the exception of the Shanghai Composite Index, boosted by financial and technology stocks with Japan, South Korea and Australia all closing stronger.

Oil prices hovered at $115 a barrel, off a record high, while gold steadied after climbing more than 2 percent the day before, supported by a weak U.S. dollar.

Financial firms such as Japan's Mitsubishi UJF Financial and Australia's Babcock & Brown jumped on JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargos' first-quarter results which soothed investors who had been counting on the big banks to handle the U.S. housing and credit crises better than rivals.

Technology firms are also climbing after IBM posted stronger-than-expected quarterly results and raised its 2008 outlook, sending a bullish signal about technology earnings in the face of a weak U.S. economy. South Korea's Hynix Semiconductor and Japan's Kyocera were among the biggest gainers.

Tokyo's Nikkei 225 Average rose 1.9 percent, up for a third day as exporters such as Canon climbed after solid earnings out of the U.S.. Japan's second-largest lender Mizuho Financial Group and other financials gained.

South Korea's KOSPI finished firmer, but off its highs, led by technology shares, with Samsung Electronics, part of the Samsung Group conglomerate, holding gains even after the Samsung Group chairman was indicted for tax fraud.

Australian shares rose 0.9 percent as financials such as Macquarie Group rose after solid earnings at big U.S. banks eased credit worries, and as strong oil and metals prices lifted
resource firms. Shares in Wesfarmers were placed on trading halt amid reports that it was planning a multi-billion dollar capital raising. Wesfarmers, which last year acquired retailer Coles Group for A$18 billion (US$17 billion), was planning to raise equity capital to refinance short-term debt used to fund the purchase, The Australian Financial Review said.

Hong Kong stocks closed 1.6 percent higher, with oil and property counters leading the rally, but shares in power companies such as Huaneng fell on cost concerns. Upbeat U.S. corporate earnings lifted regional stocks, but turnover remained low as investors opted to stay on the sidelines to await more clues on the global economic outlook.

Singapore's Straits Times Index ended 1.3 percent higher. Straits Asia Resources rose as much as 5.5 percent after its parent Straits Resources said it will move control of its coal assets to the Singapore-listed unit to improve growth prospects.

China's Shanghai Composite Index slipped 2.1 percent. Most Chinese stocks were soft after the central bank announced a rise in commercial banks' reserve ratios in response to high first-quarter inflation and economic growth figures. The 0.5 percentage point reserve rise was not as harsh as the benchmark interest rate hike which some investors had feared, and is expected to do have very little impact on money market liquidity or market interest rates. Relief at this prospect pushed up the stock market in the opening minutes, but shares soon gave up their gains because of worries that inflation would stay high and that the economy might slow later this year as the global environment worsened.