By John Phillips
Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES
SINGAPORE (Dow Jones)--Asian stock markets were higher Wednesday as positive economic data in the U.S. and favorable stress test results for a number of major U.S. banks boosted investor sentiment, with South Korean shares hitting a new high, while Japanese exporters rallied on a weaker yen.
U.S. retail sales for February rising at their fastest pace in five months and positive stress tests for fifteen of the nineteen largest U.S. banks including J.P. Morgan and Bank of America helped push stocks on Wall Street to multi-year closing highs on Tuesday.
"Advance retail sales figures came in-line with market expectations of 1.1% providing an onus that not only pushed the Dow up 1%, but indicated the largest gain in 5 months - after all consumers are responsible for more than 60% of U.S. GDP," Andrea May, sales trader at CMC Markets New Zealand said in a note.
South Korea's Kospi Composite climbed 1.5% to 2056.03 after hitting 2057.28, its highest level in over seven months. Japan's Nikkei Stock Average rose 1.9%, Australia's S&P/ASX 200 gained 1.0%, and New Zealand's NZX-50 tacked on 0.8%.
Dow Jones Industrial Average futures were down nine points in screen trade.
Financial plays were sharply higher across the region as investors were inspired by positive stress test results for major U.S. banks, some of which raised their dividends following the results. In Tokyo, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial rose 2.1% and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial gained 2.6%. In Seoul, Woori Finance jumped 4.8% and KB Financial advanced 3.6%, while in Sydney Australia & New Zealand Bank gained 1.1%.
Japanese exporters continued to benefit from the yen's weakness; Toyota Motor advanced 2.2%, Nintendo climbed 3.5% and Sony jumped 4.2%. Canon gained 3.0% following a Nikkei report that the company aims to cut at least Y400 billion in costs over four years.
Commodity plays were higher across the region after encouraging U.S. economic numbers boosted base metals prices. In Sydney, BHP Billiton rose 1.4%, Rio Tinto gained 2.2% and Fortescue Metals added 1.5%, while Sumitomo Metal Mining was 1.8% higher in Tokyo.
In foreign exchange markets the U.S. dollar was firmer against the euro and the Japanese yen as investors pared back expectations for additional stimulus measures following Tuesday's one-day Federal Open Market Committee meeting.
"With its traditional safe haven credentials in-tact, the U.S. dollar remains a beneficiary not only when the chips are down but also when major data points - such as Friday's non-farm payrolls and the overnight Federal Open Market Committee policy statement - force a re-calibration of quantitative easing expectations," Christopher Gore, currency analyst at Go Markets said in a note.
The single currency was at $1.3072 against the dollar, from $1.3083 late Tuesday in New York, and at Y108.59 against the yen, from Y108.53. The dollar was at Y83.06, from Y82.95.
Spot gold was at $1,678.40 per troy ounce, up $3.30 from its New York settlement on Tuesday. April Nymex crude oil futures were down one cent at $106.70 per barrel on Globex.
-John Phillips, Dow Jones Newswires; +65-6415-4142; firstname.lastname@example.org
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