Asian markets mixed as China data offset by US fears

Asian markets were mixed Friday, with strong Chinese manufacturing figures offset by concern about the US "fiscal cliff" and downbeat Japanese business confidence data.

Currency traders continued to sell the yen on the last working day before Japan holds a general election on Sunday, that is expected to see the ruling party ousted.

Tokyo closed flat, dipping 5.17 points to 9,737.56, and Sydney was also virtually unmoved, edging up 0.3 points to 4,583.1. Seoul eased 0.39 percent, shedding 7.73 points to close at 1,995.04.

Hong Kong closed up 0.71 percent, or 160.40 points, at 22,605.98.

Shanghai surged 4.32 percent, or 89.15 points, to 2,150.63 after HSBC said China's manufacturing activity hit a 14-month high this month, another sign the world's number two economy is picking up steam.

The bank's preliminary purchasing managers' index (PMI) hit 50.9, up from a final 50.5 in November when the figure returned to growth after 12 consecutive months of contraction.

A reading above 50 indicates expansion while one below signals contraction.

The December reading is the highest since October last year.

Qu Hongbin, a Hong Kong-based economist with HSBC, said the new figure "confirmed that China's ongoing growth recovery is gaining momentum, mainly driven by domestic demand conditions".

He added that domestic demand was the main driver of the increase, but warned overseas headwinds remained a worry for the mainly export-dependant economy.

Chinese shares were also buoyed by expectations the country's top leadership will hold a key annual meeting this weekend that will lay out major economic policies and goals for the next year.

However, markets are nervous that US lawmakers seem to be making slow progress on an agreement to avert the fiscal cliff -- $600 billion in spending cuts and tax hikes slated to come into effect on January 1 which could send the economy into recession.

President Barack Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner held what were described as "frank" talks Thursday. But there was little sign they had found common ground on a more bearable plan to cut the country's huge deficit.

Wall Street ended in the red with the Dow off 0.56 percent, the S&P 500 retreating 0.63 percent and the Nasdaq dropping 0.72 percent.

Adding to the sense of pessimism was the latest quarterly Tankan survey of manufacturers' sentiment by the Bank of Japan, which showed a steep fall in confidence.

The index came in at minus 12, a big fall from the minus three seen in the third quarter. Economists had expected a reading of minus 10.

The figures, which represent the percentage of firms saying business conditions are good minus those saying they are bad, are a key measure used by the BoJ in formulating monetary policy.

Japanese shares were given some support however, by the continuing weakness of the yen, which has tumbled since last month when the ruling Democratic Party of Japan announced a general election for December 16.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's party is expected to be easily beaten by the Liberal Democratic Party headed by Shinzo Abe, a former premier who has promised to push for more aggressive monetary easing to jumpstart the economy.

In early European trade the dollar bought 83.76 yen compared with 83.64 yen in New York Thursday afternoon, while the euro bought 109.56 yen, from 109.38 yen and $1.3077 from $1.3073.

Oil prices were higher. New York's main contract, light sweet crude for delivery in January, added 95 cents to $86.84 a barrel and Brent North Sea crude for January fell 58 cents to $107.33.

Gold was at $1,696.80 at 1100 GMT compared with $1,695.60 late Thursday.

In other markets:

-- Singapore rose 0.38 percent, or 11.88 points, to 3,168.43.

Jardine Cycle and Carriage lost 0.88 percent to Sg$48.38 while Sembcorp Industries gained 0.78 percent to Sg$5.15.

-- Taipei fell 0.75 percent, or 58.32 points, to 7,698.77.

Hon Hai Precision fell 4.69 percent to Tw$91.5, while TSMC was 0.81 percent lower at Tw$98.4.

-- Manila fell 1.40 percent, or 80.84 points, to 5,707.11.

Metropolitan Bank & Trust lost 1.6 percent to end at 101.10 pesos, Ayala Land shed 3.1 percent to 25.05 pesos and Alliance Global Group fell 2.0 percent to 16.36 pesos.

-- Wellington closed 0.11 percent higher, adding 4.45 points to 3,979.17.

Telecom rose 0.93 percent at NZ$2.18, Warehouse Group steady on NZ$2.94 and Chorus down 1.46 percent at NZ$2.70.

-- Kuala Lumpur dipped 0.77 points, or 0.05 percent, to close at 1,651.98.

YTL Power lost 1.9 percent to 1.52 ringgit while Petronas Dagangan shed 1.7 percent to end at 22.18. Nestle rose 1.4 percent to 63.98 ringgit.

-- Jakarta fell 11.33 points, or 0.26 percent, at 4,308.86.

Indofood Sukses Makmur dropped 2.42 percent to 6,050 rupiah and Telekomunikasi Indonesia fell 3.28 percent to 8,850 rupiah, while retailer Ramayana Lestari Sentosa climbed 1.56 percent to 1,300 rupiah.

-- Bangkok gained 0.35 percent or 4.69 points to 1,358.50.

Coal producer Banpu lost 0.99 percent to 402.00 baht, while electricity firm EGCO added 1.49 percent to 136.00 baht.

-- Mumbai was up 0.46 percent, 87.99 points at 19,317.25.

Tata Motors rose 1.57 percent, to 291.90 rupees, and Kingfisher Airlines was up 2.66 percent at 17.73 rupees.

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