Asian stocks listless ahead of U.S. jobs report

HONG KONG - Asian stock markets were uneven on Friday as investors awaited U.S. job numbers that could influence how far the Fed raises interest rates this year.

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Japanese shares sagged on the strengthening yen.

KEEPING SCORE: Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 index dropped 1.5 per cent to 16,791.56 as the dollar weakened against the yen, hurting shares of the country's export producers. South Korea's Kospi was flat at 1,916.16, Hong Kong's Hang Seng climbed 0.4 per cent to 19,262.40 and the Shanghai Composite in mainland China lost 0.3 per cent to 2,770.44. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 fell 0.9 per cent to 4,936.70. Benchmarks in Southeast Asia rose. Trading volumes in Asia will be muted as many exchanges shut for all or part of the Lunar New Year holiday next week.

JANUARY JOBS: All eyes are on the U.S. government's employment report for last month, which will be released later Friday after Asian markets have closed. Analysts expect a solid 200,000 jobs to be added, with the unemployment rate holding steady at 5 per cent. However, weaker than expected figures would add to other downbeat economic data that's been piling up in recent days, including contracting U.S. and Chinese factory activity and a disappointing U.S. service sector index. Taken together, it could all be used to support the case for the Fed putting off further interest rate hikes, a prospect that's already helped push down the dollar.

ANALYST VIEW: "Concerns around global growth, particularly about China and the U.S., are likely to linger so it remains premature to say we have seen the low for shares," Shane Oliver, head of investment strategy at AMP Capital in Sydney, said in a report. "In particular, a weaker U.S. dollar will be of no help if it's due to a slumping U.S. economy."

WALL STREET: Major U.S. benchmarks closed modestly higher on Thursday. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 0.5 per cent to 16,416.58. The Standard & Poor's 500 rose 0.2 per cent to 1,915.45 and the Nasdaq composite rose 0.1 per cent to 4,509.56.

ENERGY: Oil futures were steady after the wild swings of recent days. Benchmark U.S. crude was flat at $31.72 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oil prices, added 15 cents to $34.51 a barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar weakened to 116.82 yen from 116.96 yen in the previous day's trading, bringing its loss for the week to 3.6 per cent. The euro eased to $1.1194 from $1.1199, its highest in more than three months.



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