Asian markets tempered by mixed US economy figures

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BANGKOK (AP) — Asian stock markets inched higher Wednesday with gains tempered by muddled U.S. economic figures that added to ambiguity about the strength of recovery in the world’s No. 1 economy.

Japanese stocks shrugged off speculation the country’s finance minister, one of the few experienced hands in the new government’s Cabinet, will resign because of ill health. Oil prices hovered near $82 a barrel and the dollar rose against the yen and the euro.

Major indexes in the U.S. were lackluster Tuesday after the mixed economic news. Factory orders rose 1.1 in November, more than twice the forecast increase, reflecting demand in the steel, computer and chemical industries.

Meanwhile, the number of buyers who agreed to purchase previously occupied homes fell sharply in November, an indication that sales will fall this winter. The National Association of Realtors said its index of pending home sales fell 16 percent, the first drop after nine months of gains.

“There’s still general optimism that the world has survived the financial tsunami,” said Francis Lun, general manager of Fulbright Securities Ltd. in Hong Kong. “But investors could be spooked and the markets could fall if the reports about the U.S. economy show more weakness.”

Governments in trade-reliant Asia are giving more emphasis to consumer spending as a driver of growth but economic prospects remain closely tied to the U.S. — one of the biggest customers for the region’s auto and electronics exports.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 stock average was up 72.58 points, or 0.7 percent, at 10,754.16 amid reports Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii has told Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama that he would like to step down. Fujii, 77, checked into a hospital on Dec. 28 for rest and health checks.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng was up 186.17, or 0.8 percent, at 22,465.75 and South Korea’s Kospi gained 0.6 percent to 1,701.27. Australia’s benchmark advanced 0.2 percent and Singapore’s market climbed 0.5 percent while India’s Sensex slipped 0.1 percent.

In the U.S. Tuesday, the Dow industrials slipped 11.94, or 0.1 percent, to 10,572.02. The broader Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 3.53, or 0.3 percent, to 1,136.52, its highest close since Oct. 1, 2008. The Nasdaq composite index edged up 0.29, or less than 0.1 percent, to 2,308.71.

Oil prices hovered below $82 a barrel in Asia after a report showed U.S. crude supplies fell more than expected last week. Benchmark crude for February delivery was up 2 cents to $81.79 in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. On Tuesday, the contract rose 26 cents to settle at $81.77, a 14-month high.

In currencies, the dollar rose to 92.04 yen from 91.70 yen. The euro fell to $1.4357 from $1.4363.