Asia shares up; eyes on EU Greece rescue plan

Asia shares up; eyes on EU Greece rescue plan

Singapore: Asian stocks rose for the third day in a row on Thursday, powered by strong economic data from Australia and China, while the euro steadied ahead of a key summit that could lay out a rescue plan for debt-stricken Greece.

European Union leaders will lay the groundwork for a financial rescue of Greece at a summit later in the day, but any support is likely to require a big commitment from Athens on getting its economy in order.

The meeting is expected to reach a political agreement on helping Greece, while the financial details will be hammered out at a meeting of finance ministers in Brussels on Monday, a senior EU source told Reuters.

Greece’s ballooning deficit and debt have reverberated across financial markets in recent months, hitting the euro regional banking stocks and some government bonds, and prompting many investors to pull back from riskier assets worldwide.

The euro edged up 0.4% at $1.3777, a day after it shed 0.4% on concerns about the fiscal problems facing euro zone countries Greece, Portugal and Spain. It hit a 8-1/2-month low of around $1.3580 last week.

Asian shares, however, shrugged off euro zone jitters and weaker U.S. markets overnight, buoyed by data showing a surge in employment in Australia and stronger-than-expected bank lending in China in January.

The MSCI index of Asian stocks traded outside Japan advanced 1.6%, with the metals and energy sector leading the way.

The index has lost more than 8% so far this year after surging nearly 70% in 2009, far outpacing gains of just 20% in U.S. and European countries.

Asian economies apart from Japan have rebounded from the global crisis much faster than those in the West, while regional corporate earnings have mostly come in line with market estimates, with analysts recently upgrading estimates for metals and mining industries and the technology sector.

Japan was closed for a national holiday. Australian shares rose 1% and the Australian dollar jumped three-quarters of a cent after data showed employment surged past all forecasts for a fifth straight month in January, while the jobless rate dove to an 11-month low, reigniting talk that interest rates would have to go up again as early as March.

“These are great numbers for the economy," said Brian Redican, a senior economist at Macquarie. “This is the sort of jobs growth you get at the peak of booms, not when you’re just at the early stages of recovery."

“But it also means unemployment is getting down to lows that can generate wage pressures, and that must be of concern to the Reserve Bank," he cautioned.

In China, whose markets have been pressured by worries about an official clampdown on excessive credit, data showed banks lent 1.39 trillion yuan of loans in January, more than the 1.35 trillion yuan that economists had forecast.

Other data showed consumer inflation moderated more than expected in the year to January, though producer price inflation accelerated.

Shanghai’s composite index edged up 0.4%, helping push Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index 1.4% higher.

Wall Street edged lower and US Treasuries fell on Wednesday after Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke gave his most detailed comments to date on how the US central bank will begin to wean the economy off its extraordinary monetary stimulus.

South Korea’s central bank signalled it would keep its policy rate at a record low of 2% for the time being, citing lingering uncertainties over the economic outlook and European sovereign debt problems.

As expected, the Bank of Korea left its 7-day repurchase agreement rate unchanged for the 12th consecutive month and its comments dampened the risk of a near term rate rise helping Treasury bond futures extend gains.

US oil futures climbed toward $75 a barrel, extending the previous session’s gains on an upbeat oil demand growth forecast from the US Energy Information Administration and hopes of a rescue package for Greece.

Shanghai copper was set for a tepid open with Chinese data likely to steer investment flows.