Asia stocks up amid hopeful regional economic data

HONG KONG: Asian stock markets were mostly higher Tuesday as positive regional economic reports and corporate dealmaking buoyed optimism about the global recovery.

The upward move followed Western markets, where investors were encouraged by news debt-ridden insurer American International Group Inc. was selling its Asian life insurance unit to Britain's Prudential PLC for $35.5 billion.

The news, part of a rash of buyouts and mergers overnight, was seen as an indication companies are more confident about the economy's prospects.

Tuesday also brought further evidence of Asia's rebound.

Japan's unemployment rate fell in January for the second straight month and household spending posted solid growth, providing the latest signal the world's second-largest economy was healing. In South Korea, exports jumped more than 30 percent last month from a year earlier amid strengthening overseas demand.

Still, several major markets bucked the broader buying or fluctuated.

Tim Condon, head of Asia research for ING Financial Markets in Singapore, said that while there was little to derail the region's recovery, investors were still climbing a wall of worry over lingering problems in the global economy.

"Sentiment is fragile," Condon said. "Investor concerns about problems surrounding Greece and China are still fresh enough, and I don't think a consensus view of the endgame is sufficiently formed so that people can rest easy."

Japan's Nikkei 225 stock average was up 47.83 points, or 0.5 percent, at 10,219.89.

In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng dropped 173.94, or 0.8 percent, to 20,882.99. Heavy selling in HSBC shares, down more than 6 percent, weighed on the broader market after the British-based bank reported disappointing results.

Elsewhere, South Korea's Kospi gained 1.2 percent to 1,613.64 and India's Sensex climbed 1.5 percent to 16,665.92.

In Australia, stocks traded about 0.3 percent higher after the country's central bank hiked its key interest rate to 4 percent. Markets in Taiwan and Singapore also gained.

In currencies, the dollar rose to 89.31 yen from 89.11 yen. The euro was lower at $1.3537 from $1.3555.

Oil drifted lower in Asia trade, with the benchmark contract down 3 cents at $78.67 a barrel.

Wall Street futures were little changed, pointing to a flat open in the U.S. Tuesday.

Overnight in the U.S., the Dow rose 78.53, or 0.8 percent, to 10,403.79, its highest close since Jan. 20. The Dow is down 24 points for the year, though still down 322 points from a 15-month high on Jan. 19.

The broader S&P 500 index rose 11.22, or 1 percent, to 1,115.71, its best level since Jan. 21. It is now up 0.1 percent for 2010. The Nasdaq rose 35.31, or 1.6 percent, to 2,273.57. It is up 0.2 percent for the year.