Asia-Pacific Markets

Asian Markets Power Higher, Japan Adds 4% with Wires

Asian markets surged Thursday, buoyed by a surprise increase in U.S. retail sales and unexpectedly strong growth figures for the Japanese economy. Both Tokyo and Seoul closed over 4 percent higher.

Retail sales in the U.S. rose 0.3 percent last month from December, largely reflecting increases in sales of new cars and gasoline. Economists had expected the gauge to drop by 0.4 percent. Excluding autos, gasoline and building materials, retail sales climbed 0.2 percent. The surprise rise in U.S. retail sales in January suggested U.S. consumers continued to spend, improving the outlook for the Asia's beleaguered exporters.

Investors also welcomed data showing Japan's economy grew 0.9 percent in the last of quarter of 2007, double the market forecast, with external demand and capital spending particularly strong.

Japan's Nikkei 225 Average ended up 4.3 percent on those good GDP figures, with the strong U.S. retails sales data also providing a boost. A weaker yen lifted Honda Motor and other exporters, while chip-related shares such as Advantest gained after advances by their U.S. peers.

South Korea's KOSPI ended 4 percent higher, the biggest daily gain in 11 weeks, with exporters such as LG Electronics up after strong U.S. retail sales calmed concerns South Korea's No.2 export market may tip into recession. LG, the world's No.5 mobile phone maker, jumped 5 percent, while the world's top memory chipmaker Samsung Electronics added 3.3 percent.

Australian shares finished 2.6 percent higher, spurred by top miners BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto and by a recovery in banks. Banks such as Westpac Banking returned to favor after posting steep losses on Wednesday, but it was company earnings news that continued to dominate the market. Fund manager AMP Ltd fell after missing estimates for its full-year profit.  Australian stock exchange operator ASX also fell, even though it booked a strong first-half profit.

Hong Kong stocks closed 3.7 percent higher with the U.S. retail sales figures, boosting shares in export play Li & Fung. Shipping stocks, led by China COSCO, also rang up hefty gains, pacing advances in the Baltic Dry Index, an indicator for commodity-freight rates. Aluminum Corp of China rallied 10 percent at one point amid market talk that its parent Chinalco and Alcoa may raise their stake in global mining company Rio Tinto.

Singapore's Straits Times Index finished 3.3 percent higher after Wall Street rallied for a third session as positive U.S. retail data soothed economic fears. Financial counters such as top lender DBS Group, United Overseas Bank and SGX led the gainers. But shares of StarHub fell after the firm posted a 31 percent drop in fourth-quarter net profit. StarHub, Singapore's second-largest teleco after SingTel, said the earnings decline was due to lower tax credits compared with a year ago.

Chinese stocks rebounded -- with the Shanghai composite ending 1.4 percent up -- encouraged by stronger overseas markets and the launch of new mutual funds, but turnover was tiny as investors remained nervous about the outlook for the global and domestic economies. Banks, which fell sharply on Wednesday, partially recovered with Bank of China up 1.08 percent.