Asia-Pacific Markets

Economic Concerns Drag on Asian Stocks with Wires

Asian markets ended mostly lower Thursday as worries about the sickly U.S. economy were exacerbated by a falling dollar, which could prop up U.S. firms at the expense of Asia's exporters.

The only two exceptions to the market selloff were Hong Kong's Hang Seng index and South Korea's KOSPI index.

Prices for commodities from gold to oil remained near record highs on supply concerns and as investment funds looked for assets expected to outperform in an environment of slowing growth and rising prices.

U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke signaled on Wednesday that he was ready to cut interest rates again to prevent further damage to the U.S. economy, despite rising inflation risks. His comments, coupled with a sharp drop in durable goods orders and home sales, pushed the dollar to a record low against the euro on Wednesday. The yen held below 106.4 to the dollar, denting exporters such as
Toyota Motor and Canon, which both fell almost 3 percent before closing slightly higher.

Japan's Nikkei 225 Average managed to pare back the morning's sharp losses to close 0.8 percent lower, as weaker-than-expected industrial production figures plus the strong yen sank exporters. Market players said shares didn't fall as much as might be expected from the line-up of negative factors, with investors seeming to pin their hopes on another rate cut from the Fed.

South Korea's KOSPI closed 0.9 percent higher, as Korea Zinc, the world's biggest refiner of zinc, jumped 2.25 percent after London zinc futures soared 6 percent on Wednesday, as dollar weakness boosted metal prices across the board.

Australian shares extended early losses to close more than 2 percent lower as selling in banking stocks intensified after strong domestic investment data raised the prospects of an interest rate hike next week. Weaker-than-expected earnings at Suncorp-Metway, a general insurer and bank, also weighed down on the banking sector.

Shares of Australia's Centro Properties Group were higher on a Wall Street Journal report that at least four companies, including U.S. private equity firm Blackstone Group and a unit of General Electric (the parent company of CNBC) are considering making bids for the company.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index swung back into the black after a negative start, ending up by 0.4 percent. Aluminum Corp of China (Chalco), the country's top alumina producer, rose amid strained supplies. Industry officials said China's recent snowstorms and power outages may reduce primary aluminum output. Sinopec also gained 3.3 percent on talk that Asia's top refiner may receive substantial government subsidies as oil prices set records.

Singapore's Straits Times Index was down 0.7 percent, but Chinese stocks dropped, hit by profit-taking in Ping An Insurance, which had rallied this week on expectations it would revise or delay its multi-billion dollar fund-raising plan. Volumes were low, as many investors remained cautious, making a sharp rebound unlikely for now.

China's Shanghai Composite was lower by 0.8 percent at the close. It opened higher and briefly rebounded into positive territory during the afternoon, but spent most of the day lower.

Wilmar International, the world's biggest listed palm oil trader, posted a five-fold jump in fourth-quarter net profit as palm oil soared to record highs. But shares fell as much as 6 percent as traders cashed in on a strong rally this month, according to Reuters.

China's Shanghai Pudong Development Bank rebounded after the Chinese lender announced a plan to raise 25 billion yuan ($3.5 billion) by selling new shares, much less than it previously indicated.