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Asian shares up on BOK rate cut; Nikkei at 15-year high

Asian shares rose on Thursday as an unexpected rate cut in South Korea and better-than-expected jobs data from Australia helped to offset a lackluster lead from Wall Street overnight.

The Bank of Korea surprised markets by cutting its base rate for the first time in five months by 25 basis points to a record low of 1.75 percent. The move comes on the back of other rate cuts in the region, such as Thailand, India, Singapore and China, which have taken advantage of lower oil prices to ease monetary policy in a bid to spur sluggish growth.

U.S. stocks closed mildly lower on Wednesday, around 0.2 percent each for the three main bourses, amid continued concerns over the U.S. dollar's rally and the timing of a Federal Reserve interest rate hike.

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 1.4%

Japan's Nikkei 225 index accelerated its upswing to finish just shy of the 19,000 mark, with index heavyweights contributing to a huge chunk of the day's advances. Clothing store chain operator Fast Retailing and mobile carrier Softbank climbed over 1 percent each, while robot maker Fanuc charged 2.3 percent.

Toyota Motor closed up 1.2 percent after the Nikkei business daily reported that the carmaker is leaning toward a 3,700 yen rise in monthly base salary. Among other exporter stocks, Nissan and Honda rallied 2.8 and 1.9 percent each, while Panasonic and Nikon jumped more than 1 percent, respectively.

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Mainland indices up

China's Shanghai Composite gained 1.8 percent to hit a six-week high, helped by speculation that there could be another "Reserve Ratio Requirement (RRR) cut some time shortly", IG's chief market strategist Chris Weston wrote in a note.

As a result, the financial sector rallied. Bank of China led gains with a 4.2 percent climb, while China Construction Bank, Bank of Communications and Agricultural Bank of China advanced 3 percent each. Junior banks such as Shanghai Pudong Development Bank and Hua Xia Bank notched up 6 and 5.4 percent each.

In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index was rangebound for the day, up 0.4 percent.

HKBN pared early losses and ticked up 0.1 percent to HK$9.010 in its trading debut on Thursday. The broadband-service provider raised $750 million in the city's biggest listing this year.

ASX up 1%

Australia's S&P ASX 200 index widened gains after data showed the Australian economy added 15,600 jobs in February, above expectations for a 15,000 increase. The unemployment rate, meanwhile, came in at 6.3 percent, matching market consensus. The Australian dollar, which has always been sensitive to the data, last traded at $0.7626 to the dollar.

The big four lenders led the charge for the day. Westpac rallied 1.6 percent, while National Australia Bank, Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Australia & New Zealand Banking climbed more than 1 percent, respectively. Whitehaven Coal closed up 2.9 percent, pulling back from a 8 percent surge on news that it struck a deal to refinance $1.4 billion in debt.

However, weakness among iron ore miners capped advances. Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton saw losses below 0.6 percent each, while Fortescue Metals lost 1.8 percent.

Early Thursday, New Zealand's central bank held its benchmark rate steady, in line with expectations, and the New Zealand dollar notched up 0.3 percent to trade at $0.7310 per dollar.

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Kospi drops 0.5%

South Korea's Kospi index threw away earlier gains to fall below the flatline in the final hour of trade, while the won bounced off its lowest level since July 2013.

Financials cheered the rate cut; blue-chip KB Financial Group elevated 4 percent, while Woori Bank and Shinhan Financial rallied 3.4 and 2.2 percent each. However, these gains were offset by steep losses among the blue-chips; Samsung Electronics lost 3.4 percent, while Hyundai Motor and Posco eased nearly 3 percent each.

Korean Airlines is in focus after a flight attendant filed a lawsuit against the airline and one of its vice presidents over last year's nut rage case. Shares of the national carrier erased early losses to rebound 2.1 percent.

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Rest of Asia

India's benchmark stock index rose almost one percent, helped by some upbeat economic numbers. Data showed industrial output growth up 2.6 percent on-year in January, above analyst expectations in a Reuters poll for a 0.65 percent rise.

Other data showed India's annual consumer inflation rose to 5.37 percent in February from 5.11 percent in January.

Thailand's key SET index reversed earlier falls to close 0.3 percent higher -- a day after the country's central bank announced a rate cut.