Asian Markets Struggle to Hold Their Ground

Asian stocks struggled Thursday ahead of the latest U.S. payrolls report, while the U.S. dollar remained near a three-week low against the euro, sensitive to lingering doubts about its reserve status.

The U.S. unemployment rate is forecast to rise to a 26-year high of 9.6 percent, which would test even the most die hard bulls on the extent of the recovery underway even after Wednesday's positive manufacturing figures from China, the euro zone and the United States.

The dollar made up some lost ground against major currencies after it fell the previous session on news China was seeking debate on proposals for a new global reserve currency at next week's Group of Eight meeting. Crude prices edged up toward $70 a barrel, with a reported increase in U.S. gasoline inventories ahead of the summer driving season not able to keep oil down for long.

Japan's Nikkei 225 Average closed down 0.6 percent, dented by a fall in blue-chip shares as caution set in ahead of U.S. jobs data, but Hitachi jumped on a report it will boost production of lithium ion batteries for hybrid cars.

South Korea's KOSPI ended flat as investors remained cautious ahead of corporate earnings season, and the index was weighed down by losses in shipbuilders and energy issues. But Hynix Semiconductor jumped on gains in DRAM memory chip prices.

Australian shares finished 0.1 percent higher but pared back stronger earlier gains as caution set in ahead of key economic and earnings news, starting with the U.S. June jobs report out later in the day.

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Hong Kong stocks fell 1.1 percent as strong manufacturing data from the mainland cemented investor confidence in the ongoing recovery in the world's third-largest economy. Chinese banks extended gains, with China Construction Bank up 0.2 percent and Bank of China climbing 0.8 percent ahead of June loans data, which is expected to show another month of strong new lending on the mainland. New lending by Chinese banks was likely to hit 1.2 trillion yuan ($175.6 billion) in June, the China Securities Journal said last week, even as bank regulators warned against improper lending.

Singapore's Straits Times Index was down 1.4 percent, with Sembcorp Marine, the world's second-largest rig builder, falling 1.5 percent despite securing a new $237.3 million deal.

China's Shanghai Composite Index gained 1.7 percent. Chinese insurers jumped after the SCI breached the 3,000-point level for the first time in more than a year, raising hopes for strong investment income at insurance companies in 2009 after last year's market meltdown. The world's largest insurer China Life advanced, while China's second-biggest insurance company Ping An also gained.