Most Asian stocks gave up early gains on Friday as weak U.S. retail sales and a rise in jobless claims made investors wary about the strength of its economic recovery, offsetting better-than-expected earnings from technology bellwether Intel.
The weak U.S. economic data boosted Treasuries and provided a lead for government bonds in Japan and South Korea as investors bet U.S. interest rates will be kept very low for a prolonged period to give the economy time to get on more solid footing.
Japan's Nikkei average <.N225> briefly hit a 15-month high before weaving in and out of negative territory amid investor caution that the benchmark had risen too sharply in a short span of time.
But tech-heavy markets like Taiwan <.TWII> and South Korea <.KS11> clung more strongly to initial gains after Intel's
Mark Konyn, who oversees about $11 billion as Asia-Pacific chief executive of RCM, a unit of Allianz Global Investors, said the improved earnings were a result of corporate demand carried over from past years.
What we are seeing in technology is continued momentum partly as a result of deferred capex spending over the last almost two years now slowly coming through and that will probably continue for a bit longer now, he said.
Intel's 28 percent increase in fourth-quarter revenue plus a financial forecast well ahead of Wall Street's expectations came on a day when U.S. retail sales and weekly jobless claims data disappointed and ultimately proved a drag on Wall Street, with major indexes ending the day only marginally higher. <.N.>
The Commerce Department said retail sales fell 0.3 percent last month, the first decline since September, as consumers spent less during the holiday shopping month.
A separate report from the Labor Department showed initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 11,000 to 444,000 last week, higher than the 437,000 claims analysts surveyed by Reuters had forecast.
Geoff Lewis, head of investment services at JP Morgan Asset Management, said although corporate earnings had improved, they needed to be bolstered by good economic data.
Everyone is talking of this transition from the initial phase of the business cycle where you have PE (price/earnings) re-ratings based on the economic indicators to an earnings-led phase, we don't disagree with that, he said.
But you still have to see continued good news on the economic front to validate improvements in corporate earnings forecasts.
The Intel results also fueled demand for currencies leveraged to global growth, like the Australian and Canadian dollars. But the U.S. dollar <.DXY> and yen later reversed their losses as investors pared risk amid the uncertain economic outlook.
Overnight, the Australian dollar briefly rose to $0.9331, its highest since mid-November.
Japanese government bonds also rose after the U.S. economic data boosted U.S. Treasuries, but gains were capped as the firmness in Tokyo shares made investors hesitant.
The MSCI index of Asia Pacific stocks traded outside Japan <.MIAPJ0000PUS> was trading flat after rising as much as 0.25 percent. The index of technology shares was up 1.03 percent.
The Thomson Reuters index of regional shares <.TRXFLDAXPU> was down 0.5 percent.
Japan's Nikkei average rose to its highest since October 2008 with data showing flows into Japan equity funds hit a near 3-year high. The MSCI Japan index has risen over 6 percent on the year compared with 2.6 percent for the MSCI Asia Pacific ex-Japan index, but analysts say this is to be expected.
It would not be surprising when there will be brief periods when Japan will outperform, it has done so badly in the past. It is difficult to become enthusiastic over that market, said Lewis, whose fund is neutral on Japan.
Oil fell below $79 a barrel and was set for its first weekly drop in more than a month, as the disappointing economic data added to expectations for reduced heating demand in the United States.
(Editing by Kim Coghill)