Asia shares in check as Japan returns to recession

BANGKOK (AP) — Japan’s slide into recession following the March earthquake and tsunami muted the effects of a rally on Wall Street to keep Asian stock markets in check Thursday.

Oil prices hovered above $100 a barrel, reversing two days of losses, while the dollar weakened against the euro and the yen.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 slipped 0.5 percent to 9,613.18 after the government announced the economy had contracted sharply in the first quarter, hobbled by the March 11 disasters that wiped out factories in the northeast producing crucial parts for the country’s manufacturers.

Real gross domestic product shrank at an annualized rate of 3.7 percent in the January-March period, the second straight quarter that the world’s No. 3 economy has shrunk.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the nuclear power plant that was crippled by the tsunami, plummeted 7.7 percent.

“I think Japan will be mired in recession for the entire year,” said Hong Kong-based analyst Francis Lun. “The U.S. is showing some signs of recovery so markets are building on that.”

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng rose 1 percent to 23,241.43, with property shares rising as investors cast off nervousness about possible real estate bubbles and government action to tamp down prices. Hong Kong-listed blue chips China Overseas Land & Investment Ltd. rose by 3.6 percent, and China Resources Land Ltd. was 2.6 percent higher.

“The government has been trying to beat down property prices for the last 2 1/2 years with limited success,” Lun said. “People are betting the government will fail in controlling prices.”

Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 rose 1.4 percent to 4,757.90, with mining shares gaining on the back of rising prices for commodities like metals and oil. A weakening dollar helps prop up crude and other commodities that are priced in dollars because they become more attractive to holders of other currencies.

BHP Billiton, the world’s largest miner, was 1.2 percent higher. Energy Resources of Australia Ltd. jumped 1.6 percent.

Singapore’s FTSE Strait Times Index was 0.9 percent higher at 3,170.56 after the government raised its 2011 economic growth forecast. The Trade and Industry Ministry said it expects gross domestic product to expand between 5 percent and 7 percent, which is 1 percentage point more than the government’s previous forecast.

South Korea’s Kospi index slipped 1.1 percent to 2,111.02, with tech shares losing ground. Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. was down 1.1 percent and Hynix Semiconductor Inc. lost 2.7 percent.

Mainland China’s Shanghai Composite Index slipped less than 0.1 percent to 2,870.52, while benchmarks in the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand were also lower.

Airline shares slid due to the rise in crude prices, which makes jet fuel more expensive. Hong Kong-listed China Southern Airlines Co. Ltd. plunged 4 percent. Taiwan’s EVA Airways Corp. was down 2.7 percent.

On Wall Street, gains in commodity prices lifted energy and materials companies as part of a broad stock market rally Wednesday after three days of declines. Sentiment was also helped by the release of minutes from the Federal Reserve’s latest meeting that suggested the U.S. economy is improving.

The Dow Jones industrial average added 0.6 percent to close at 12,560.18. The S&P index rose 0.9 percent to 1,340.68. The Nasdaq composite gained 1.1 percent to 2,815.

Benchmark crude for June delivery was up 30 cents to $100.40 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose $3.19, or 3.3 percent, to settle at $100.10 on Wednesday.

In currencies, the euro gained to $1.4291 from $1.4226 late Wednesday in New York. The dollar fell to 81.56 yen from 81.63 yen.

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