Asia stocks up amid caution ahead of US job report

HONG KONG: Asian stocks were mostly higher Thursday, but buying was restrained by caution ahead of a key U.S. jobs report that could shed light on the pace of recovery in the world's largest economy.

Trading was lethargic and volumes thin throughout the region, suggesting investors were reluctant to place bets one way or the other. Oil prices slipped moderately but held above $69 a barrel, while the dollar was little changed against the yen.

Investors were awaiting U.S. jobs figures, due out later Thursday, that are expected to show another uptick in the unemployment rate last month to 9.6 percent, a 26-year high.

Growing unemployment has kept investors on edge in recent months because it suggests the financial health of American consumers, whose spending habits are so critical to the U.S. economy and Asian exporters, is shaky.

"The biggest concern is if unemployment hits above 10 percent," said Alex Tang, head of research at Core Pacific-Yamaichi International in Hong Kong. "That will create lots of uncertainty about the pace of recovery in the U.S., and that's definitely a major worry right now."

Despite overnight gains on Wall Street, Asian markets were largely directionless.

Tokyo's Nikkei 225 stock average reversed gains to fall 43.66, or 0.4 percent, to 9,896.27. In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng traded higher by 176.91 points, or 1 percent, to 18,555.64, after the market was closed Wednesday for a holiday.

Elsewhere, Korea's Kospi added 0.1 percent in back-and-forth trade. Markets in Australia and Shanghai gained, while Thai and Malaysian markets fell. Taiwan's benchmark was up 1.3 percent.

Traders see a confluence of factors that could keep the markets adrift in the coming weeks: quieter summer months, caution ahead of earnings reports in August, and signs stocks are fairly priced after the spring rally.

But because most of the economic evidence points to a bottoming out, neither are markets likely to suffer big losses for now.

"Everybody is well positioned and recent IPOs and placements have generally fared well," said John Mar, co-head of sales trading at Daiwa Securities SMBC Co. in Hong Kong. "I don't think anyone sees a sharp pullback ... Near term there doesn't seem to be anything that's going to shock the market."

In the U.S. overnight, reassuring data on manufacturing and housing lifted Wall Street higher to start the quarter.

The Dow rose 57.06, or 0.7 percent, to 8,504.06. It climbed as high as 8,580.47 in earlier trading, but then pared its gains as the day went on.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 4.01, or 0.4 percent, to 923.33. The Nasdaq composite index rose 10.68, or 0.6 percent, to 1,845.72.

U.S. futures pointed to a lower open Thursday. Dow futures dropped 21, or 0.3 percent, to 8,427 and S&P futures gained 1.6, or 0.2 percent, to 917.60.

Oil prices lingered above $69 a barrel in Asia, with benchmark crude for August delivery off 14 cents at $69.17. On Tuesday, it fell 58 cents to settle at $69.31.

The dollar traded at 96.61 yen from 96.51 yen. The euro was lower at $1.4112.