Asian Stocks Soar as US Data Boost Recovery Hopes

HONG KONG – Asian stock markets soared Thursday, with benchmarks in Japan and Hong Kong up 4 to 5 percent, as stronger-than-expected U.S. economic figures boosted confidence the world's largest economy is on the mend.

The region's huge gains followed an overnight surge on Wall Street and extended last month's rebound in world equity markets amid tentative signs of stabilization in the hard-hit global economy and banking industry It came as Group of 20 leaders gathered in London for a summit that aims to hammer out policies to combat the slump and reform the global financial system.

Nearly every sector charged higher, with carmakers like Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. rallying on U.S. auto figures that were less dismal than feared. Exporters such as Sony Corp. were lifted by the weakening yen.

Investors were encouraged after U.S. car sales jumped by nearly 25 percent last month from February, beating the typical rise and underpinning hopes of a turnaround in the American auto market — critical for Asia's giant auto companies.

A rebound in pending U.S. home sales in February from a record low, as well as improving manufacturing activity, added to a growing belief the most severe global downturn in decades may be moving close to a bottom.

Still, the upbeat evidence distracted investors from more sobering news the U.S. private sector continued to shed hundreds of thousands of jobs last month — a worrisome sign as investors brace for Friday's report on nationwide job cuts. Meanwhile, there were signs of widening divisions between major nations at the G-20 meeting.

With the economic crisis still far from over, analysts warned of more painful phases as the recession unfolds that will keep markets volatile.

"We're starting to see some initial signs of green shoots. The question is whether or not this is a sound foundation for stability in the economy," said Song Seng Wun, economist at CIMB-GK in Singapore. "It's still hard to tell."

Japan's Nikkei 225 stock average jumped 367.87 points, or 4.4 percent, to 8,719.78, while Hong Kong's Hang Seng led Asia's gains, soaring 696.39 points, or 5.2 percent, to 14,215.93. South Korea's Kospi added 3.5 percent to 1,276.97.

Elsewhere, benchmarks in Australia, Singapore and Taiwan gained about 3 percent or more. India's Sensex climbed 4.5 percent to 10,346.41. Shanghai's index added 1.4 percent.

Auto companies turned in a strong performance, with Toyota up 6.1 percent and Nissan Motor Co. vaulting 12.5 percent. Sony rose 8.9 percent.

Also supporting sentiment were overnight gains on Wall Street, where investors were stretched out a four-week rally that's taken the market off its lowest levels in 12 years.

The Dow rose 152.68, or 2 percent, to 7,761.60, and broader market indicators also rose. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 13.21, or 1.7 percent, to 811.08.

U.S. stock futures pointed to more gains Wednesday on Wall Street. Dow futures were up 92 points, or 1.2 percent, to 7,810 and S&P 500 futures gained 10.8, or 1.3 percent, to 820.

Oil crept above $49 a barrel in Asia as investors weighed glimmers of hope in the U.S. economy against concerns that global demand remains weak. Benchmark crude for May delivery rose 84 cents to $49.23 a barrel. The contract fell $1.27 on Wednesday to settle at $48.39.

In currencies, the dollar rose to 98.81 yen from 98.42 yen, and the euro gained to $1.3283 from $1.3245.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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