Asia stocks rise amid positive US company news

Asian stock markets up as US consumers spend despite tax hikes; Nikkei up as yen eases

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BANGKOK (AP) -- Stock markets in Asia moved higher Thursday on the heels of positive corporate news and resilience in U.S. consumer spending.

Japan's Nikkei 225 index rose 0.6 percent to 11,317.61. The Tokyo market shrugged off data showing the Japanese economy shrank for a third straight quarter in the last three months of 2012, as investors expected the yen's recent weakness will boost company earnings.

The Bank of Japan ended a policy meeting Thursday with no new initiatives, which was the expected outcome ahead of an impending leadership change at the central bank.

Its governor Masaaki Shirakawa, who has appeared at odds with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's views, is resigning next month, giving the government an opportunity to find a successor more sympathetic to Abe's push for ultra-loose monetary policy.

South Korea's Kospi swung between gains and losses to be marginally lower at 1,975.02. Australia's S&P/ASX 300 advanced 0.8 percent to 5,045.40 largely due to gains in the resource sector. Hong Kong's Hang Seng rose 0.9 percent to 23,433.27 amid muted trading. Markets in Singapore and the Philippines fell while mainland China and Taiwan remained closed for Lunar New Year holidays.

Francis Lun, managing director of Lyncean Holdings in Hong Kong, said the local market was being led higher by financial stocks on "a rumor" that Chinese banks would be given permission to increase lending. Agricultural Bank of China rose 3.7 percent. Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, the world's largest bank by market value, advanced 2.3 percent.

The Hang Seng, reopening after a three-day holiday, displayed no sign of distress over North Korea's underground nuclear test that took place Tuesday.

"Unless they throw a nuclear bomb at South Korea or Japan, nobody thinks much of it," Lun said.

Among individual stocks, Australian aluminum producer Alumina surged 7.9 percent after Chinese financial company CITIC paid $452 million Australian dollars for a major stake in the company.

Global stocks mostly pushed higher on Wednesday on upbeat corporate earnings and evidence that U.S. consumer spending is withstanding tax increases. The latest figures showed U.S. retail sales rose 0.1 percent last month despite a hike in payroll taxes. While the rise was the smallest in three months, analysts said it nevertheless showed underlying resilience in consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of the world's largest economy.

Sentiment was also supported by news that Comcast Corp, America's biggest cable TV operator, agreed to buy half of NBCUniversal for $16.7 billion. Investors took the deal as a vote of confidence in the economy and the media industry.

Solid U.S. earnings also boosted sentiment. Cisco System Inc.'s latest quarterly earnings rose 44 percent to exceed analyst forecasts. Duke Energy's fourth-quarter earnings beat analysts' expectations as electricity rates rose and more extreme weather increased demand for power.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 0.3 percent to 13,982.91. The Dow was dragged down by fast-food giant McDonald's, which fell on fears that Americans would pull back on restaurant spending. The S&P 500 gained 0.1 percent to 1,520.33. The Nasdaq composite rose 0.3 percent to 3,196.88.

Benchmark oil for March delivery was up 15 cents in electronic trading to $97.16 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract dropped 50 cents to finish at $97.01 a barrel on the Nymex on Wednesday.

In currencies, the euro fell to $1.3440 from $1.3447 late Wednesday in New York. The dollar rose to 93.50 from 93.48 yen.

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Follow Pamela Sampson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pamelasampson

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