Asia stocks firm near 22-month high; yen falls

 @ibtimes on April 09 2010 3:00 AM

Asian stocks edged closer to a 22-month high on Friday, supported by strong U.S. retail sales data, while the yen retreated after rising the previous day on talk that China was close to allowing a modest rise in the yuan.

European shares were expected to open up between 0.4 and 0.7 percent after sharp declines on Thursday, while S&P index futures were almost unchanged, indicating a flat start on Wall Street later.

Spot yuan was flat against the dollar, showing no sign that a rise was imminent after closing at its highest level since October the day before on a New York Times report that China was close to announcing a policy shift.

China's central bank fixed the yuan's daily mid-point, or reference rate, at a level almost the same as the previous day.

The fixing dampened bullish sentiment toward the yuan triggered by the New York Times report yesterday, said a senior trader at a major Chinese state-owned bank in Beijing.

But as the yuan has already been pushed to such a high level of political attention, nothing can be ruled out, even a one-off revaluation.

The report coincided with U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner brief visit to Beijing where he met Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan and exchanged views on U.S.-China economic relations and the global economy.

The MSCI's broad measure of shares in the Asia-Pacific outside Japan <.MIAPJ0000PUS> rose 0.5 percent. It has gained more than 4 percent since the beginning of the year and is now holding up near levels not seen since late June 2008, just a couple of months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

The index has neared 440 points this week, the 61.8 percent Fibonacci retracement of its slide from a peak in November 2007 to its 2008 trough.

Hong Kong stocks <.HSI> rose 1.3 percent, nearing a three-month high, as strong earnings from ZTE Corp <0763.HK> and Tsingtao Brewery <0168.HK> and hopes of appreciation in the yuan lifted mainland shares.

Seoul shares <.KS11> slipped 0.5 percent as a strengthening won dented appetite for key exporters such as Hyundai Motor <005380.KS>, while reaction to the Bank of Korea's decision to hold its interest rate was limited.

Tokyo's Nikkei average <.N225> rose 0.3 percent, boosted by strong earnings guidance from the likes of popular casual clothing chain Fast Retailing <9983.T>, but gains were capped due to profit-taking after the benchmark's recent rally to 18-month highs.

The Nikkei has risen about 6 percent so far this year.

Better-than-expected U.S. retail sales data helped support sentiment, but gains are likely to be kept in check ahead of U.S. earnings next week from heavyweights such as Intel Corp with investors mindful of longer-term uncertainty about the U.S. economic recovery and simmering worries about debt-laden Greece.

Though market attention has shifted to earnings, the Japanese season doesn't really get going for another two weeks, meaning the market may search for direction, said Kenichi Hirano, operating officer at Tachibana Securities in Tokyo.

On Thursday, top U.S. chains reported a record year-over-year increase in same-store sales for March, sending the S&P 500 Index <.SPX> 0.3 percent higher. The sales reflected a boost in consumer demand that some investors had doubted would materialize, with job growth still anemic.

The U.S. dollar rose 0.3 percent to 93.65 yen after the market found solid bids below 93 yen on Thursday when it fell as far as 92.83 yen. Asian currencies are seen likely to gain from any move by China to revalue its currency.

The yen came under pressure on news that Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was to meet Bank of Japan Governor Masaaki Shirakawa, with the market looking for any signs of pressure from the government for more monetary policy easing to fight deflation.

In the event, they exchanged views on the economy and financial situation but Shirakawa said Hatoyama made no requests.

The euro rose earlier as investors trimmed record-high short positions, but it struggled to keep those gains as worries about Greece simmered in the background.

The single currency dipped 0.1 percent to $1.3372, having lost about 7 percent since the beginning of the year.

Commodity prices were steady, with U.S. crude futures up at about $86 a barrel, after falling the two previous days, while gold hovered near a 3-month high.

JGB futures edged up as very long-dated cash bonds gained early on new fiscal year purchases by investors, although they later retreated.

Mitsui Life Insurance Co said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday that Japan's fifth-largest life insurer is likely to buy 100 billion yen ($1.07 billion) in superlong bonds in the current financial year.

Investor interest in emerging markets and their commodities stories jumped during the first week of April, data from fund tracker EPFR Global showed on Thursday, with flows into emerging markets equity funds it follows hitting a 24-week high.

Emerging markets bond funds extended their inflow streak to 22 straight weeks and commodity funds absorbed another $265 million, EPFR said, but Japan equity funds posted outflows for the first time this year as a stronger yen and disappointing business investment numbers offset bullish expectations for the first quarter earnings season.

(Additional reporting by Satomi Noguchi and Elaine Lies in Tokyo; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)

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