US housing figures shore up markets

Associated Press
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An Indonesian woman walks past an electronic stock board at the Jakarta Stock Exchange in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012. Asian stock markets rose Wednesday after the Bank of Japan became the latest major central bank to announce action to shore up fragile economic growth. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

LONDON (AP) — Strong U.S. housing figures shored up markets Wednesday after an earlier bout of optimism over stimulus measures from the Bank of Japan ran out of steam.

The market mood perked up after the National Association of Realtors revealed that sales of previously occupied homes jumped in August to the highest level in more than two years. Sales were up 7.8 percent at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.82 million, the most since May 2010, when sales were fueled by a federal home-buying tax credit.

The existing home sales figures came hot on the heels of fairly solid housing starts figures for August and fueled hopes that the U.S. housing market is on the mend. A more robust U.S. housing market is considered a key requisite for the economy to rebound.

"The U.S. housing recovery is for real," said Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.

The data helped solidify stock market gains in Europe and the U.S. after an earlier advance during Asian trading hours lost momentum.

In Europe, the FTSE 100 index of leading British shares closed up 0.4 percent at 5,888.48 while Germany's DAX rose 0.6 percent to 7,390.76. The CAC-40 in France ended 0.5 percent higher at 3,531.82.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average was up 0.3 percent at 13,608 while the broader S&P 500 index rose the same rate to 1,463.

Earlier, the focus in the markets was the Bank of Japan's decision to ease monetary policy to shore up fragile economic growth. The central bank said it was increasing its asset purchasing fund to 55 trillion yen ($700 billion) from 45 trillion yen to counter the strength of the Japanese currency. A strong yen makes it more difficult for Japanese companies to compete in international markets.

The Bank of Japan's move came days after the U.S. Federal Reserve revealed it will purchase an average of $40 billion a month in mortgage-backed securities until the economy shows significant improvement. The Fed's goal is to lower long-term interest rates and encourage more borrowing and spending. The Fed also said it plans to keep its benchmark short-term interest rate near zero until mid-2015.

Asian stock markets, which tend to respond favorably to actions targeting economic growth, rallied in the wake of the announcement with Japan's Nikkei 225 stock index closing 1.2 percent higher to 9,232.21, its highest close in more than four months.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng climbed 1.2 percent to 20,841.91 and Australia's S&P/ASX 200 added 0.5 percent to 4,418.40. South Korea's Kospi gained 0.2 percent to 2,007.88. The Shanghai Composite Index rose for the sixth straight trading day, up 0.4 percent to 2,067.83. The Shenzhen Composite Index gained 0.7 percent to 865.73.

The market impact of the Bank of Japan's move was short-lived, a possible sign that investors are getting stimulus-wary.

"The reaction has been more like a collective shrugging of shoulders," said Ben Critchley, a sales trader at IG Index. "At the back of investors' minds is the knowledge that such action has only been precipitated by the parlous state of the global economy."

In the currency markets, the impact proved short-lived too. In the aftermath of the move, the yen fell to a one-month low against the dollar but by the end of the European session it was more or less flat on the day at 78.40 yen.

Meanwhile, the euro remained supported, trading 0.2 percent higher at $1.3069. The euro has enjoyed a stellar few weeks as concerns over Europe's debt crisis have eased somewhat, largely on the back of a new bond-buying plan from the European Central Bank.

Oil prices however slid sharply after a big rise in U.S. inventories. The price for the benchmark oil contract was down $3.01 at $92.28 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.