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Ahead of ECB, Asian shares higher in choppy trade

Asian stocks rose amid a choppy session on Thursday as the market digested expectations that the European Central Bank (ECB) will launch an aggressive stimulus package at today's policy meeting.

"It is clear investors are positioning for some aggressive action by Europe. The headline will be the size of the program on a nominal basis, with broad expectations of a 550 billion euros plan," Stan Shamu, IG's market strategist, wrote in a report. "With expectations running high, the risk will be for the ECB to disappoint."

Wall Street set the positive mood by finishing higher in a choppy session overnight, as investors digested reports that the ECB's executive board had proposed monthly bond purchases of roughly 50 billion euros in a quantitative easing program that would last at least a year. The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended up 0.2 percent while the S&P 500 added 0.5 percent. The tech-heavy Nasdaq gained 0.3 percent.

Symbol
Name
Price
 
Change
%Change
NIKKEI
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HSI
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ASX 200
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SHANGHAI
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KOSPI
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CNBC 100
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Nikkei rises 0.3%

After switching directions several times throughout the session, Japan's key Nikkei 225 index eventually settled a tick higher on Thursday, supported by a slightly weaker yen. The currency traded above 118.2 against the U.S. dollar, compared to Wednesday's close of 117.93.

Toyota Motor was in focus after forecasting lower vehicle sales for 2015 as demand slumped in Japan, China, Indonesia and other key markets. Shares of the world's top-selling automaker pared an initial 0.6 percent loss to close flat, while other carmakers like Nissan and Honda advanced 1.1 and 0.4 percent. Suzuki Motor was the biggest loser in the sector, with a loss of 1 percent.

Sony, whose entertainment unit is investigating its India operations for bidding fraud and kickbacks, added 0.5 percent.

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Mainland indices up

China's benchmark Shanghai Composite index closed up 0.6 percent after wavering in between gains and losses for the session.

Among gainers, iron and steel state-owned enterprise Baotou Steel climbed up 6 percent, while China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation made gains of 7.7 percent. Insurance stocks were also broadly higher, with China Life Insurance and China Pacific Insurance rallying 3.8 and 1.2 percent each. Ping An Insurance was the exception, falling more than 2 percent.

Banking majors weighed on the bourse; Agricultural Bank of China and Bank of China tanked 1 percent each, while China Construction Bank receded nearly 2 percent.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong's Hang Seng index rose 0.6 percent to clinch a near seven-week high. Index heavyweights Cheung Kong and Hutchison Whampoa - the business empire of Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing - extended Wednesday's gains by 0.3 and 0.4 percent each on the former is buying Britain's Eversholt Rail Group for $3.8 billion.

Sydney up 0.5%

Australia's benchmark S&P ASX 200 index closed at a one-and-a-half-week high at the end of a two-day rally, while the Australian dollar weakened significantly to fetch $0.8068 - a two-week low - to the dollar.

"Big 4" lenders led advances, with Westpac Banking up 1.4 percent while National Australia Bank and Commonwealth Bank of Australia gained 0.7 percent, respectively.

Energy producers were buoyed by gains in crude oil prices overnight; Oil Search and Woodside Petroleum shot up 3 percent higher each, while Santos scaled up 1.2 percent.

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Kospi flat

South Korean shares finished 41 points below the flatline, backing down from a near two-week high earlier in the session, amid a pullback in index heavyweights.

Samsung Electronics, the heaviest weighted stock on the Kospi index, erased gains to sag 1.2 percent on research that showed Samsung's marketshare shrinking in Japan, China and home country, South Korea, due to competition from Apple's iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Hyundai Motor, which was in the news after its labor union said it will appeal against a recent court ruling unfavorable to the automaker's employees, widened losses to 2 percent.

Korean Air also reversed initial gains to notch down over 3 percent despite news that it plans to sell 44 of its planes by 2017 to improve the carrier's financial situation.

Battered energy stocks, which got a rare lift from gains in crude prices overnight, capped losses on the bourse; SK Innovation, the country's largest refiner leaped 4.2 percent while S-Oil elevated 2.4 percent.