Asia stocks muted as China manufacturing weakens

Elaine Kurtenbach, AP Business Writer

TOKYO (AP) -- Shares in Asia were mixed Friday as China's manufacturing waned and many investors watched for progress on resolving an impasse that could bring on drastic spending cuts by the U.S. government.

China's manufacturing grew at its weakest rate in five months in February as demand faltered and factories shut down for the Lunar New Year holiday. Economic data from Japan showed a slight improvement in unemployment but a plunge in business investment and persisting deflation. That dimmed optimism over the nomination of Haruhiko Kuroda, a backer of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's deflation-fighting economic strategies, to become head of the Bank of Japan.

Tokyo's Nikkei 225 stock index was up 0.6 percent at 11,623.96 while Hong Kong's Hang Seng dropped 0.3 percent to 22,958.23. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 shed 0.4 percent to 5,084.40. South Korean markets were closed for a public holiday. Mainland China's benchmark fell 0.8 percent to 2,346.45.

Markets in Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia were higher while shares in the Philippines and New Zealand lost ground.

Investors are keeping an eye on risks from U.S. spending cuts due to take effect at the start of March as part of a previous budget agreement between the White House and Congress. The planned "sequester" could hit U.S. growth if no deal is reached to avoid it, though past experience suggests a last-minute deal may be cobbled together.

"Some investors are in a wait and see mode," said Linus Yip, a strategist at First Shanghai Securities in Hong Kong, where he said the market was consolidating after Thursday's rally.

Yip said sentiment, while cautious, was underpinned by expectations that monetary easing will continue as central banks endeavor to minimize any potential impact if the U.S. budget standoff is not resolved in time.

Wall Street got a temporary boost from news the U.S. economy grew at an annualized rate of 0.1 percent in the final three months of 2012 instead of contracting as estimated earlier but gains faded by the close of trading.

The Dow Jones industrial average ended with a loss of 20 points, or 0.2 percent, at 14,054. That's 110 points below the record close it reached in October 2007. It came within 15 points of that level during the day Thursday. The Standard & Poor's 500 index ended down a point, or 0.1 percent, at 1,514. The Nasdaq composite lost two points, or 0.1 percent, to close at 3,160.

The U.S. dollar has rallied this week thanks to positive economic news and rising tensions over Italy. The euro was down 0.1 percent at $1.3081 while the dollar was up 0.1 percent at 92.60 yen.

The yen slipped to the 94 yen to the dollar level earlier in the weak and then bounced higher on concern over the potential impact of Italy's political morass. But Abe's decision to name Kuroda, president of the Asian Development Bank, as governor of Japan's central bank raised expectations for further weakening of the yen.

Benchmark crude for April delivery was down 15 cents at $91.90 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.