Hong Kong shares, which rose the past two days, slipped on Thursday, pulled down by weakness in financial stocks as investors took profits after their recent relative strength and ahead of some key earnings reports.
Mainland Chinese markets rose for a fifth-straight session. Gold stocks helped the Shanghai Composite Index finish up 0.3 percent, to its highest close in nearly three months, as A-share turnover was at its second-highest since Nov 3.
The China Enterprises Index of the top mainland listings in Hong Kong fell 0.9 percent. The broader Hang Seng Index dropped 0.8 percent to 21,381, as turnover in Hong Kong was its lowest in seven sessions.
There seems to be some who are quite tentative about expected earnings, locking in some profits especially on companies that have done well lately, said Alan Lam, Julius Baer's Greater China equity analyst.
AIA Group Ltd and HSBC Holdings Plc, scheduled to post 2011 earnings on Friday and Monday, respectively, were among the top drags on the Hang Seng, down 1.3 and 1.5 percent.
Although HSBC has lost 2.2 percent since closing on Tuesday at its highest since early August, it is still up almost 19 percent in 2012, outpacing the benchmark's 16 percent gain.
Since Jan. 26, eleven of 23 analysts who follow AIA have cut their cut their earnings-per-share estimates by an average of 22.6 percent, according to Thomson Reuters StarMine. for AIA by an average of 22.6 percent.
For HSBC, seven of 17 analysts have raised their estimates for by an average of 1.6 percent since Feb. 2, according to StarMine.
In a preview of AIA's earnings, Barclays analysts said they expect the insurer to deliver a strong set of operational results, with stable growth in operating profit, despite a 40 percent decline in headline profits from the previous year.
Citi analysts reiterated their buy rating on HSBC and upped their target price to HK$79.60, believing 2012 should be a better year for profitability, partly on its structural strengths compared to peers focused on developed markets. On Thursday, HSBC closed at HK$70.15.
ESPRIT OUTPERFORMS, GOLD STOCKS STRONG
Bucking the day's broader weakness, Esprit Holdings Ltd surged 25 percent after its first-half results -- a 74 percent fall in profit -- were better than the market was braced to hear. I volume more than four times its 30-day average, shares of Esprit had their biggest one-day gain in more than 14 years.
Traders said Esprit remains under-owned, expecting more strength ahead for the retailer with funds looking to roll back into its stock with the outlook on the company improving.
Esprit is now up 77 percent this year after plunging 73 percent in 2011, from HK$37.80 to HK$10.20.
Gold prices that hit a three-month high overnight helped bolstered gains for gold stocks in Hong Kong and China.
The Shanghai materials sub-index was an outperformer, up 0.9 percent. Zijin Mining Group , the mainland's biggest gold producer, rose 2.2 percent in Shanghai and 0.6 percent in Hong Kong.
In a measure of the improving sentiment in mainland markets, shares in Chinese cable TV Jishi Media Co Ltd surged by 87.4 percent on its debut on the Shanghai bourse.
Appetite for new listings could be bolstered after official mainland media reported that the head of the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) is looking to address issues of overpriced initial public offerings (IPO).