World stocks sidestep unrest, nuclear crisis

BANGKOK (AP) — World stocks were higher Wednesday as investors brushed aside unrest in the Middle East and a nuclear crisis in Japan to focus on what some hope is a more positive longer-term outlook for equity markets.

Tokyo’s benchmark Nikkei 225 index rose 2.6 percent to 9,708.79, its highest level since March 11, when a tsunami smashed into the country’s northeast — upending entire cities, killing thousands of people and causing a nuclear power plant to malfunction and leak toxic radiation into the air, water and soil.

The Nikkei was boosted by a steadily weakening yen and data showing the country’s industrial production climbed for the fourth straight month in February. Still, the government warned that industrial production would fall sharply as the effects of the tsunami and the earthquake that spawned it were felt.

Shares in Europe opened higher, with Britain’s FTSE 100 up 0.5 percent to 5,961.15. Germany’s DAX rose 1.2 percent to 7,019.36 and France’s CAC-40 was up 1 percent at 4,026.92. Dow Jones industrial futures rose 43 points to 12,268, and S&P 500 futures were 5.5 points higher to 1,322, indicating a higher opening on Wall Street.

Meanwhile, oil prices extended losses below $105 a barrel after a report showed U.S. crude supplies rose more than expected last week, suggesting rising fuel costs may be crimping demand.

Energy markets have been rattled by pro-democracy uprisings that have cut off oil exports from Libya and threatened disruptions of crude supplies from major oil producers like Saudi Arabia and Iran.

With all the trouble looming, analysts couldn’t quite explain why investors were choosing to look at the bright side.

“We can’t see any real reason as to why the markets are moving higher. All of the macro concerns that saw them violently sell off three weeks ago are still present to some degree. For one reason or another, markets are now choosing to look beyond these concerns and focus on the positive longer-term outlook,” said Ben Potter of IG Markets in Melbourne.

As investors waited for signs the nuclear crisis in Japan was stabilizing, they snapped up shares in export stocks helped by a weakening yen. Consumer electronics maker Sharp Corp. was up 4.1 percent, and — despite serious production disruptions — Toyota Motor Corp. rose 2.3 percent. Nissan Motor Corp. gained 3.8 percent.

Shares in Japanese companies expected to play a major role in rebuilding the country’s quake-shattered northeast also rose. Mitsubishi Heavy Industry Ltd. gained 4.6 percent. Electronics maker Hitachi Ltd. surged 8.7 percent on reports that the company had partially resumed operations in eastern Japan.

But shares in the operator of the damaged nuclear power plant nosedived amid an onslaught of selling. Tokyo Electric Power Co. Inc., known as TEPCO, fell the maximum daily limit of 18 percent Wednesday. TEPCO’s share price has tumbled nearly 80 percent since the quake and tsunami knocked out power and backup systems at its Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, causing it to bleed radiation.

Elsewhere, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index rose 1.7 percent to 23,451.43, with Agricultural Bank of China Ltd. up 2.7 percent after announcing its 2010 profit soared 46 percent, driven by an economic rebound and growth of rural business. Air China Ltd. rose 2.8 percent after the company said its 2010 profit more than doubled to 12 billion yuan ($1.8 billion).

Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. was one of the biggest gainers in Hong Kong, rising 5.1 percent after reporting that annual profit jumped as its third-generation mobile phone unit was finally profitable. The conglomerate owned by billionaire Li Ka-shing also raised its dividend for the first time in a decade.

South Korea’s Kospi added 0.9 percent to 2,091.38. Shares in Singapore, Taiwan and New Zealand were also higher. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 rose 1.4 percent to 4,822.20.

Bucking the trend were indexes on mainland China. The Shanghai Composite Index dropped slightly to 2,955.77, and the smaller Shenzhen Composite Index declined 0.8 percent to 1,264.59.

In New York on Tuesday, stocks finished broadly higher after consumer confidence fell less than some analysts had feared.

The S&P 500 rose 9.25 points, or 0.7 percent, to 1,319.44. The Dow Jones industrial average gained 81.13 points, or 0.7 percent, to 12,279.01. The Nasdaq composite rose 26.21, or 1 percent, to 2,756.89.

Benchmark crude for May delivery was down 19 cents to $104.60 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract gained 81 cents to settle at $104.79 on Tuesday.

The euro was little changed at $1.4107. The dollar rose to 83.05 yen from 82.43 yen in New York late Tuesday.

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