BANGKOK (AP) — Asian stock markets rose Friday after the number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell last week, offsetting a somber economic forecast by the European Central Bank for a bleak year ahead in the region.
The U.S. Labor Department said Thursday that applications dropped 25,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 370,000, a level consistent with modest hiring. The number of people continuing to receive unemployment aid also fell.
Japan's Nikkei 225 index was marginally higher at 9,546.65. South Korea's Kospi added 0.5 percent to 1,958.41. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 rose 0.9 percent to 4,548.90. Hong Kong's Hang Seng was up 0.3 percent to 22,308.07.
Mainland Chinese shares posted substantial gains after recent sharp sell-offs. The Shanghai Composite Index rose 1.2 percent to 2,053.86. The smaller Shenzhen Composite Index jumped 1.5 percent to 781.48.
Chris Weston of IG Markets in Melbourne said the upcoming release on Sunday of inflation, retail sales and factory output data from China is expected to point to a modestly improving economy. That helped boost mainland stocks.
"China is seeing modest buying, which could be a sign that investors there are hoping to see further signs of a recovery in this Sunday's data dump," said Weston.
Traders were also looking forward to next week's meeting of Federal Reserve policymakers. Weston said he expected Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to announce new measures to replace Operation Twist, a program under which the Fed sells $45 billion a month in short-term Treasurys and then buys an equal amount of long-term securities. The program expires in December.
"If it doesn't get announced, then there are real risks that we'll see a sizeable sell-off in risk assets," he said.
On Thursday, the European Central Bank said that the economies of 17 countries that use the euro will contract next year. The central bank stopped short of offering new measures to boost growth and left its key interest rate unchanged at a record low.
The combined economy of the euro countries is in a recession after a massive debt crisis followed by government spending cuts and tax hikes that have hurt growth.
"Although the ECB left policy rates unchanged the post ECB meeting press conference effectively opened the door to a rate cut in Q1 next year following sharp downward revisions to growth projections and well below target inflation projected over the medium term," said analysts at Credit Agricole CIB in Hong Kong.
Among individual stocks, Japan's Sharp Corp. shot up 11.6 percent a day after news reports said the struggling electronics firm will start selling U.S. solar power company SunPower Corp.'s household solar panels to strengthen its own solar panel business.
Japan's Nishimatsu Construction Co. jumped 7.8 percent and South Korea's SK Hynix, the world's No. 2 memory chip maker, rose 3.8 percent.
Benchmark oil for January delivery was up 27 cents to $86.54 in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell $1.62, or 1.8 percent, to finish at $86.26 per barrel in New York on Thursday.
In currencies, the euro rose to $1.2968 from $1.2963 late Thursday in New York. The dollar rose to 82.45 yen from 82.36 yen.
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