The major markets across the Asia-Pacific region ended higher on Thursday, taking cues from Wall Street where the markets closed higher amid volatile trading on positive economic data.

On Wednesday, the Dow closed up 89.84 points or 1.2% at 7,750, the Nasdaq closed up 12.43 points or 0.8% at 1,529 and the S&P 500 closed up 7.63 points or 1% at 814.

A report from the U.S. Commerce Department revealed that durable goods orders unexpectedly jumped 3.4% in February after falling by a revised 7.3% in January. In another report, the Commerce Department said that new home sales rose 4.7% to an annual rate of 337,000 in February from an upwardly revised January rate of 322,000.

Better-than-expected economic data in the U.S raised hopes in Asian markets that the slowdown in the world's largest economy is easing, and the efforts of the central banks and governments will succeed in retrieving the global economy from recession and restore stability in the financial sector sooner-than-expected.

In Tokyo, the benchmark Nikkei 225 Index rose 156.34 points or 1.8% to 8,636, and the broader Topix Index of all the First Section issues gained 1% or 8.32 points to 827.

On the economic front, the Bank of Japan said that corporate service prices in Japan were down 2.6% year-over-year in February. Forecasts called for a 2.5% year-over-year drop after the 2.2% annual decline in January. On a monthly basis, corporate service prices inched higher by 0.2%.

Meanwhile, the Finance Ministry reported that foreign residents sold 624.1 billion yen more in Japan stocks than they purchased for the week ending March 21. However, foreigners purchased a net 511.9 billion yen in Japan bonds and notes. Meanwhile, residents of Japan were purchasers of a net 6.1 billion yen or foreign stocks for the week. They also bought more foreign bonds and notes than they sold in the week, having purchased a net 247.2 billion yen worth.

Banking stocks led the gains. Mitsubishi UFJ, Japan's biggest bank, rose 1.50%, and Sumitomo Mitsui advanced 2.06%. However, Resona Holdings lost 1.38% on profit taking.

Shares of Mizuho Financial declined 1.29%. The Nikkei business daily reported that Mizuho Corporate Bank, an affiliate of Mizuho Financial Group, has sold about 1 billion yen of its shareholdings to the Bank of Japan after the central bank resumed its initiative to buy bank-held shares late last month.

Exporters moved up on the back of a weaker yen. Sony Corp. surged 9.40%, Canon advanced 3.49%, and Sharp gained 1.82%.

Among technology stocks, manufacturer of silicon wafers, Sumco Corp. gained 8.03% and Advantest Corp. moved up 3.98%.

Oil-related stocks were mixed. While Showa Shell rose 3.44% and Inpex gained 0.42%, Nippon Oil lost 0.38%. Among trading houses, Mitsubishi Corp. declined 1.38% and Sumitomo Corp. lost 0.32%. However, Itochu gained 1.35%.

In Sydney, the benchmark S&P/ASX 200 Index gained 37.3 points, or 1.03%, to 3,647, and the broader All Ordinaries Index advanced 40.10 points, or 1.13%, to 3,586.

On the economic front, the Reserve Bank of Australia noted that the nation's banking system is one of the world's strongest and is well-positioned to weather the global economic crisis. In its semi-annual Financial Stability Review issued Thursday in Sydney, the RBA noted that that while the global financial system continues to experience significant stress, the Australian Banking system has performed well over recent times.

Meanwhile, the Conference Board's Leading Economic Index for Australia registered a decline of 0.6% in January and now stands at 111.2. The Board's Coincident Index, which measures current activity, increased 0.6% for the period and currently stands at 13.1. The private sector organization reported Thursday that the Leading Index dropped for the fifth straight month, with building approvals, stock prices and the yield spread the main contributors, offsetting gains in the real money supply and rural goods exports.

The major banks ended mostly higher following the RBA's semi-annual review. Investment bank Macquarie Group rose 4.20%. Australia and NZ Bank gained 3.21%, National Australia Bank advanced 3.09% and Westpac Bank moved up 0.36%. However, Commonwealth Bank of Australia declined 1.87%.

In the resources sector, mining conglomerates advanced on higher commodity prices. BHP Billiton gained 1.89% and rival Rio Tinto advanced 1.52%. BHP Billiton said it sold $4.3 billion of fixed interest rate medium term bonds in two tranches in the Eurobond market overnight, and announced the commencement of oil and gas production at its 100,000 barrels per day Shenzi project in the Gulf of Mexico.

Gold miners gained after gold closed higher overnight, snapping a three-day losing streak. Newcrest Mining rose 2.12% and Lihir Gold gained 1.25%. However, Sino Gold fell 2.31%.

Among oil stocks, Woodside Petroleum advanced 2.88%, and Santos rose 2.88%. However, Oil Search declined 0.56%.

The benchmark KOSPI Index in South Korea gained 1.2% or 14.78 points to 1,244, on positive cues from Wall Street.

Technology stocks led the gains. Hynix Semiconductor advanced 14.71%,, and LG Display gained 2.13%. However, LG Electronics remained unchanged from previous close. Market heavyweight Samsung Electronics rose 2.52%.

Financials ended higher. KB Financial Group, the holding firm of Kookmin Bank, rose 4.26%, Shinhan Financial gained 2.56%, and Woori Finance moved up 1.13%. Oil stocks also advanced. SK Holdings rose 0.89% and S-oil moved up 0.98%.

On the other hand, shipbuilders ended weaker on profit taking. Daewoo Ship building declined 1.52%, and Samsung Heavy Industries edged down 0.18%. Hyundai Heavy Industries remained unchanged.

In HongKong, the benchmark HangSeng Index rose 3.57%, or 486.87 points, to 14,109, primarily led by financial stocks.

ICBC shares surged 14.80% on huge volumes after the bank reported flat results for the fourth quarter, which was in line with expectations. The bank also stated that the percentage of special mention loans is unlikely to increase in 2009. The special mention loans accounted for about 5.2% of the total loans of the bank in 2008, the bank noted.

Among other financials, Bank of Communications moved up 9.59%, CCB gained 7.48%, and Bank of China rose 7.85%. Bank of East Asia advanced 4.07% and Hang Seng Bank added 0.43%. However, HSBC Holdings lost 0.69%, on profit taking.

Insurance stocks also ended higher. Ping An advanced 5.54% and China Life rose 4.34%.

Among resource stocks, Aluminum Corporation of China, or Chalco, gained 6.09%, CNOOC advanced 3.88% and Petrochina rose 3.71%.

China-related stocks also ended higher. China Mercantile Holdings rose 10.18%, Sinopec Corp. gained 7.54%, and China Resources moved up 0.82%. However, China Overseas lost 1.66%.

Among the other major markets in the region, China's Shanghai Composite Index gained 3.00% or 70.15 points, to 2,362, Singapore's Strait Times Index advanced 67.11 points, or 3.87%, to 1,759, and Taiwan's Weighted Index rose 0.75%, or 40.18 points, to 5,387.

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