Asia Ends Mixed; Nikkei at 8-Month High

Asian markets ended mixed with Japanese shares rallying on Thursday as investors snapped up shares of exporters after the dollar hit two-week highs against the yen, but markets elsewhere in Asia were more subdued ahead of the influential U.S. non-farm payrolls report.

The FTSE CNBC Asia 100Index was up 0.3 percent.

The Nikkei 225 rose to its highest level in eight months on Thursday after the dollar jumped against the yen following surprisingly strong data on U.S. private-sector jobsthat added to evidence the U.S. economy is on a recovery path.

Shares of blue-chip exporters rose, with Toyota Motor gaining 2.6 percent and Hitachi up 2 percent, leading the Nikkei's advance after the greenback posted its best one-day gain in more than three months against the yen on Wednesday.

The benchmark Nikkei closed up 1.4 percent, or 148.99 points, to 10,529.76, its highest level since a May 14 high of 10,551.69, which now becomes its next target. The broader Topix index gained 1.4 percent.

The Nikkei breached the psychologically important barrier of 10,500 after the ADP Employer Services report showed U.S. private employers added 297,000 jobs in December, the largest ever gain and exceeding market expectations for 100,000.

The jobs figures come two days ahead of the U.S. government's closely watched and more comprehensive payrolls report for December, prompting economists to raise forecasts for that data.

Resona Holdings surged 14 percent on speculation it would soon launch a planned share sale.

Fuji Heavy Industries, the maker of Subaru vehicles, surged after Goldman Sachs hiked its rating to "buy" from "neutral" and added the stock to its "conviction buy list".

But shares in Fast Retailing sharply underperformed the overall market, after the firm said in a preliminary report on Wednesday that December sales at its Uniqlo clothing chain in Japan fell 15.5 percent on the year on a same-store basis.

Seoul Hits New High in Choppy Trade

Seoul shares weaved in and out negative territory after briefly hitting a fresh all-time high earlier on Thursday, weighed down by falls in banking plays such as KB Financial Group, while firm gains in shipyards cushioned the fall.

The Korea Composite Stock Price Index (KOSPI) ended down 0.2 percent at 2,077.61 points.

Financials weighed as financial holding firms that run the country's biggest banks retreated on reports that they would contribute to solving the problems of troubled savings banks suffering from exposure to real estate project-financing loans.

The chairman of Woori Finance Holdings told reporters on Wednesday that Woori planned to buy one or two savings banks. KB Financial Group said late on Wednesday that it was reviewing plans regarding the savings banks issue, which recently emerged as an issues in relation to the stability of the local financial market.

KB slid 3.1 percent and Woori fell 2.9 percent. Hana Financial Group lost 1 percent.

Shipbuilders rallied as the sector outlook continued to grow more positive, analysts said. Hyundai Heavy, Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering and Samsung Heavy Industries advanced.

Australia Recovers to End Up

Australian stocks closed higher after trading in the red for most of the session, helped by a late recovery in mining stocks.

The benchmark S&P/ASX 200 ended up 0.2 percent. It fell 0.6 percent on Wednesday to its lowest close in nearly a month.

Coca-Cola Amatil rose 1.1 percent after reassuring investors it could post 10 percent net profit growth in 2010 despite wet weather and lower consumer demand hurting underlying earnings.

Explorer China Yunnan Copper Australia rocketed 72 percent after it announced a significant rare earth discovery in Queensland state at a joint venture with Goldsearch. Goldsearch doubled to 6 cents.

Woodside Petroleum rose 0.9 percent after oil prices bounced back to above $90 a barrel on Wednesday as unexpectedly big gains in U.S. private sector jobs spurred optimism the economy was recovering at a faster pace.

Ping An Pulls Shanghai Shares Lower; HK Holds On to Gains

A weak China market, dampened by shares of large cap life insurers and caution ahead of U.S. payrolls data, weighed on Hong Kong's benchmark stock index which only just managed to hold on to gains for a seventh successive day.

The Hang Seng Index rose 0.1 percent on Thursday supported by real estate developers while banks were broadly weaker on reports that China's central bank would not set a clear loan target for the year.

China's key stock index fell 0.5 percent to 2,831.9, stuck below
the 250-day moving average that has capped gains for the past six weeks.

Ping An Insurance (Group) of China fell 4.1 percent, the biggest drag on the Shanghai Composite, on rumours that the life insurer was planning to raise as much as 100 billion yuan ($15 billion) through a share sale. Ping An shares in Hong Kong fell 0.7 percent.

Property developers in Hong Kong extended gains from Wednesday on good volume as investors were drawn by attractive valuations and on expectations that real estate prices would stay high as capital flows into Hong Kong remain steady.

Traders said there was also some reversal of a recent reallocation into commercial property developers and away from residential developers after Hong Kong authorities introduced measures to curb speculation in real estate.

Sun Hung Kai Properties rose 2.1 percent, the second biggest boost to the benchmark behind HSBC. Cheung Kong Holdings rose 2.2 percent.

Cheung Kong, the property flagship of billionaire Li Ka-shing, is said to be planning Hong Kong's first yuan listing. Cheung Kong shares will also be supported by a 3G-led turnaround in Hutchison Whampoa of which Cheung Kong holds a 49.9 percent stake, said Eric Wong, analyst at UBS. Hutchison shares rose 2.3 percent.

Conglomerate Swire Pacific, which owns commercial properties including malls in Hong Kong, fell 3.2 percent.

Mainland Chinese banks were broadly weaker with China Construction Bank down 0.8 percent, the biggest drag on the broader market. ICBC fell 0.7 percent.

China will not set a clear lending target for banks this year, instead guiding the flow of credit based on observations about the broader economy, an official newspaper said on Thursday.

Singapore's Straits Times Index ended up 0.8 percent while the KL Composite was little changed at 1,568.37 points.

Malaysia's Maybank and Singapore brokerage Kim Eng were both halted from trade on news the lender would make an offer to buy Kim Eng for $1.4 billionin the biggest ever deal involving a securities house in the city-state.