Asian markets edge up as dealers focus on US, China


Hong Kong (AFP)

Dealers trod carefully in Asia on Friday following an upbeat week across global trading floors, with focus turning to a key US jobs report later in the day and the start of China's annual policy gathering.

After the miserable start to the year for investors, March has so far been a ray of sunshine thanks to some positive US data and Beijing's decision to ease monetary policy.

A pick-up in oil prices -- which in January were near 13-year lows below $30 a barrel -- has also provided some stability, with energy firms breathing a sigh of relief.

"US data continues to shine, oil continues to firm and risk appetite is coming back into all aspects of the markets," Angus Nicholson, market analyst at IG in Melbourne, wrote in an email to clients.

However, after this week's gains dealers are watching upcoming events nervously. On Friday Washington will report how many jobs were created in the US economy in February. That comes after better-than-expected reports on private jobs, the manufacturing sector, construction spending and auto sales.

The figures come two weeks before the Federal Reserve holds its next policy meeting, which will be keenly watched to see if it hikes interest rates again or gives an idea about its plans.

Saturday sees the start of China's National People's Congress, where delegates will sign off on a new five-year economic plan. There are growing hopes that authorities will also unveil measures to shore up the world's number two economy, which is growing at its slowest pace in a quarter of a century.

Earlier this week the government cut the amount of cash banks must keep in reserve as it looks to get them lending again.

- 'Key issue' -

Tokyo's Nikkei was flat by the break, while Hong Kong added 0.8 percent, Shanghai 0.3 percent and Sydney 0.2 percent. Singapore and Wellington enjoyed big gains but Seoul dipped 0.2 percent.

"It would not surprise me to see traders finish the week on a cautious note ahead of China’s National People’s Congress this weekend and the US jobs data tonight," Ric Spooner, chief market analyst in Sydney at CMC Markets, said in an e-mail to clients.

"The question of where China’s authorities stand on balance between short-term economic stimulus and longer-term structural reform is a key issue for world markets," he said according to Bloomberg News.

Oil prices, for most of this year a millstone around the neck of traders, retained recent gains on hopes that key producers including Russia and OPEC titan Saudi Arabia would be able to agree to a deal to freeze or cut output.

In early trade US benchmark West Texas Intermediate was up 0.4 percent at $34.70 while Brent was flat at $37.07.

The broadly positive outlook also helped emerging market currencies that have been battered this year by a flight to safer, lower-yielding, investments.

The Australian dollar, South Korean won and Thai baht each added 0.3 percent, while Indonesia's rupiah gained 0.5 percent.

- Key figures around 0230 GMT -

Tokyo - Nikkei 225: DOWN 4.1 points at 16,956.06 (break)

Shanghai - composite: UP 0.3 percent at 2,868.15

Hong Kong - Hang Seng: UP 0.8 percent at 20,092.73

Euro/dollar: UP at $1.0947 from $1.0957 on Thursday

Dollar/yen: UP at 113.51 yen from 113.69 yen

New York - Dow: UP 0.3 percent at 16,943.90 (close)

London - FTSE 100: DOWN 0.3 percent at 6,130.46 (close)