Asian stock markets lack clear trend

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Asian stocks lacked a clear direction on Tuesday as Seoul, Jakarta and Bangkok made fresh progress but other markets in the region succumbed to profit-taking after recent gains.

Tokyo inched up to a fresh 7½-month high as gains for steelmakers and technology companies offset losses in the banking and media sectors.

The benchmark Nikkei 225 Average closed 0.1 per cent higher at 11,649.49, but the Topix index eased 0.04 per cent to 1,168.19.

Steelmaking stocks were among the biggest gainers following reports that major Japanese producers would increase their use of alternatives to coking coal. Prices Japanese makers pay for coking coal, an essential material in steel production, are expected to double in the coming year.

JFE rose 2.7 per cent to Y3,060, and Kobe Steel was up 1.1 per cent at Y181.

The technology sector continued to rally as investors hunted for bargains following a string of disappointing earnings reports by consumer electronics firms earlier this month. Fujitsu rose 2 per cent to Y662, Toshiba was 1.9 per cent higher at Y440, and Hitachi climbed 0.5 per cent to Y668.

Shares of SMFG, Japan's third biggest bank, fell 0.4 per cent to Y715,000 following last week's news of a possible tie-up with Daiwa Securities. Daiwa shares fell 1.5 per cent to Y723.

UFJ, in talks with MTFG over a reported October integration, dropped 0.2 per cent to Y563,000.

Nomura Securities saw its share price slip 0.1 per cent to Y1,460 after the Nihon Keizai business daily reported that the brokerage was in talks with Rothschild over a financial link-up.

Fuji Heavy, the maker of Subaru cars, dropped 4.8 per cent to Y491 after it lowered full-year forecast, prompting a set of rating downgrades.

Seoul closed at a second consecutive five-year high after the central bank left interest rates unchanged at a record low and economic data pointed to signs of a mild recovery in domestic consumption.

The composite index rose 0.4 per cent to 968.88, its highest close since early February, 2000. Blue chips showed the way higher with Hyundai Motor, the country's leading carmaker, rising 1.1 per cent to Won57,100.

Traders said the central bank had kept interest rates unchanged at a record low of 3.25 per cent for a third consecutive month amid signs of a pick-up in domestic demand.

Jakarta hit a new all-time high as tobacco and car stocks forged ahead and the government made optimistic noises about the strength of the economy.

The composite index rose 1.6 per cent to 1,067.20, its third record this month.

Sampoerna, the cigarette maker, jumped 9.4 per cent to Rp8,150 on hopes it would report strong 2004 profits. Astra International, Indonesia's biggest car distributor, gained 3.5 per cent, to Rp10,400, its first gain in five days.

Bank Niaga extended Monday's rise as investors remained enthusiastic about Monday's strong full-year results from the bank. The stock gained 4.1 per cent to Rp510.

The government said that the economy might have expanded by as much as 5.1 per cent last year, more than had been previously forecast, helped by consumer spending and investment.

Bangkok got a boost from a raft of strong corporate results, and the SET index closed 1.1 per cent higher at 736.91, its highest level for a year.

Thai Oil announced that its 2004 had more than doubled, sending its shares up 0.9 per cent to Bt55. Parent company PTT finished 1.1 per cent firmer at Bt193 on hopes that its earnings would be similarly robust.

Thai Airways International climbed 0.5 per cent to Bt48.25 after unveiling a forecast-beating set of quarterly figures.

Hong Kong ran into profit-taking after hitting a six-week high on Monday. The Hang Seng index finished at 13,995.83, down 0.2 per cent.

Cosco Pacific, the ports and shipping containers group, tumbled 4.9 per cent to HK$16.50 after rising sharply in recent sessions. China Merchants, the port arm of China's communications ministry, shed 4.1 percent to HK$15.25.

But commodities-related stocks were mostly higher, with oil producer CNOOC gaining 1.8 per cent to HK$4.175, Jiangxi Copper adding 2.3 per cent to HK$4.475 and gold miner Fujian Zijin Mining rising 2.9 per cent, to HK$3.50.

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