Asian shares fall amid worries about Middle East

BANGKOK (AP) — Most Asian shares were in retreat Monday, although oil-related stocks rose with markets keeping nervous watch as political unrest in the Middle East spread to OPEC member Libya.

Oil prices bounded to over $87 a barrel amid investor concern that violent protests in Libya could disrupt crude supplies. In currencies, the dollar weakened against the yen but was up against the euro.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 stock average was flat at 10,846.73 as the index pared robust gains made last week.

Blue chip manufacturers like Honda Motor Corp. and Toshiba were down, each by about 1 percent. But Inpex, Japan’s largest energy explorer, gained 1.7 percent — in line with higher oil prices and investors leaning toward commodities over equities during times of uncertainty.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index lost 0.4 percent to 23,508.62. Again, however, oil companies were on the rise. Sinopec, Asia’s biggest oil refiner by volume, rose 0.2 percent. State-owned oil company CNOOC Ltd. rose 1.6 percent and PetroChina Ltd., China’s biggest oil and gas producer, was up 0.4 percent.

Benchmarks in Taiwan, Singapore and New Zealand also retreated, while China’s benchmark Shanghai Composite index rose 0.1 percent.

South Korea’s Kospi fell 0.5 percent to 2,002.84 and Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 shed 0.8 percent to 4,895.40.

Sentiment was also hurt by a move Friday by China to control inflation. Beijing ordered its banks to hold back more money as reserves, raising the required level by 0.5 percent of deposits. Reserves vary by institution but are about 20 percent for China’s biggest state-owned lenders.

Shares of Australia resource companies, which rely heavily on growing Chinese demand, slumped in response. BHP Billiton Ltd. fell 1.8 percent. Rival Rio Tinto Ltd. also lost 1.8 percent. Japanese stocks also sensitive to Chinese demand dropped, including Komatsu Ltd., a maker of construction equipment, by 0.6 percent, and Hitachi Construction, down 1.3 percent.

While keeping an eye on Mideast unrest, analysts said Asian markets had performed well recently and were perhaps due for some profit-taking.

“I think the focus is on the nervousness in the Middle East with the potential disruption to oil supplies. The markets have been pretty volatile in the past few weeks because of this added geopolitical uncertainty, but Asian equities had a pretty good bounce last week, so maybe this is a little correction to that,” said David Cohen, economist at Action Economics in Singapore.

On Sunday, Moammar Gadhafi’s son went on state television in Libya to proclaim that his father remained in charge with the army’s backing. Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, in the regime’s first comments on the six days of anti-government demonstrations, also warned protesters that they risked igniting a civil war in which Libya’s oil wealth “will be burned.”

Libya’s response has been the harshest of any Arab country that has been wracked by the protests that toppled long-serving leaders in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. The instability pushed oil prices higher amid worries of supply disruptions.

In the U.S., stock and bond markets are closed for Presidents Day. Germany’s Ifo institute was to release its monthly index of business confidence, a closely watched indicator for Europe’s biggest economy.

In currencies, the dollar slipped to 83.11 yen from 83.16 yen late Friday. The euro rose to $1.3673 from $1.3690.

Benchmark crude for March delivery was up $1.03 at $87.23 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. In London, Brent crude for April delivery gained $1.11 to $103.63 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

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