Asian stocks subdued on US mixed signals

BANGKOK (AP) — Lackluster economic news from the U.S. and China’s latest move to dampen inflation kept Asian stock markets in check Friday.

Oil prices fell to near $98 a barrel as the U.S. dollar strengthened, making commodities such as crude more expensive for investors with other currencies.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 slipped 1.3 percent to 9,594.56 as the country’s currency rose against the dollar, posing yet another concern to earthquake-embattled exporters. Toshiba Corp. lost 2.7 percent, while Sony Corp. slipped 1.7 percent and Panasonic Corp. lost 1.6 percent.

Elpida Memory Inc., a major maker of microchips, tumbled 5.1 percent a day after reports said the company’s net profit plummeted 32 percent in fiscal 2010.

Nissan Motor Co. was up 2 percent after announcing it had returned to profit in the fourth quarter, although uncertainties remain due to the damage from the mammoth March 11 earthquake and tsunami that have disrupted production for Japanese automakers.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng slipped 0.4 percent to 22,972.79. Energy companies were dragged down by dropping oil prices, which translate into declining revenues. PetroChina Co. Ltd., the publicly traded unit of China’s biggest oil and gas company, slumped 1.5 percent; China National Offshore Oil Corp., or CNOOC, lost 1.2 percent.

But airlines, whose profit margins are sensitive to fuel prices, went higher as the price of crude dampened. China Southern Airlines Co. Ltd. jumped 4.8 percent, and China Eastern Airlines Corp. Ltd. rose 2.5 percent.

South Korea’s Kospi lost 0.5 percent to 2,111.32, while Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 was marginally up at 4,698.10. Benchmarks in Taiwan, New Zealand and the Philippines were lower, while Indonesia and Singapore rose.

“There’s really no good news out there that is a catalyst for buying,” said Tom Kaan, head of equity sales for Louis Capital Markets in Hong Kong. Thursday’s turnaround on Wall Street represented bargain-hunting and people “trying to buy on the bottom side.”

Mainland China’s Shanghai Composite Index was marginally higher at 2,845.71, with sentiment muted by Thursday’s central bank order for most commercial banks to increase the amount of money they hold in reserves, a new move to curb inflation. The central bank’s order was the fifth reserve increase this year.

On Wall Street on Thursday, a small recovery in commodities and safe-haven buying of companies that make consumer staples like toilet paper and pasta helped reverse a decline to end the day with modest gains.

Consumer staples and health care led the market due in part to concerns that high gas prices will erode consumer spending and cut into corporate earnings. Companies that sell everyday items or provide health-related products and services are less dependent on economic growth for their profits since people typically spend money on such items even if they cut back elsewhere.

On the down side, the Labor Department said applications for unemployment benefits fell last week to 434,000, slightly less than what economists expected. That report contributed to early losses in the market.

The Dow Jones industrial average gained 0.5 percent to close at 12,695.92. The S&P 500 added 0.5 percent to 1,348.65. The Nasdaq composite rose 0.6 percent to 2,863.04.

Benchmark crude for June delivery was down 53 cents to $98.44 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract gained 76 cents to settle at $98.97 per barrel on the Nymex on Thursday.

In currencies, the euro weakened to $1.4206 from $1.4231 late Thursday. The dollar slipped to 80.63 yen, reversing its gains from earlier in the day. The greenback fetched 80.91 yen in New York on Thursday.

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