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Asian stocks mostly down, yen hits fresh lows

[HONG KONG] Asian markets mostly fell on Thursday after another round of weak manufacturing data underlined the slowdown in China's economy while minutes from the US Federal Reserve's latest meeting gave few hints about its plans for interest rates.

Further losses in the yen to multi-year lows against the dollar and euro were not enough to lift Tokyo's Nikkei after this week's surprise news that Japan had slipped into recession.

Tokyo was flat, Hong Kong edged up 0.10 per cent, Shanghai eased 0.15 per cent and Seoul was 0.61 per cent lower, while Sydney lost 0.36 per cent.

Preliminary figures from British banking giant HSBC Thursday indicated manufacturing activity in China was stagnant in November. Its purchasing managers index (PMI) came in at 50. Anything above that points to growth and a figure below suggests contraction.

The result compares with 50.4 in October and is the latest data showing the world's number two economy and key driver of regional and global growth is struggling with soft exports and a weakening property sector.

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However, it will likely raise hopes that Beijing will unveil a fresh stimulus as the impact of growth-inducing measures from earlier this year fades.

"We still see uncertainties in the months ahead from the property market and on the export front," HSBC economist Qu Hongbin said in a statement. "Growth still faces significant downward pressures." Traders were given a tepid lead from Wall Street after the Fed's minutes shed little light on its plans for monetary policy.

Minutes from the US central bank's October 28-29 policy meeting showed policymakers were confident enough in the economy to bring an end to its vast bond-buying stimulus programme.

However, they also made clear there was little thought of departing from its current policy of keeping interest rates at the current zero level well into 2015. Most analysts forecast initial hikes in around the middle of next year.

In New York the Dow edged down 0.01 per cent and the S&P 500 lost 0.15 per cent, while the Nasdaq dropped 0.57 per cent.

On currency markets the yen fell further against the dollar after Japan's central bank trimmed its inflation expectations and held off unveiling any more easing measures to boost the country's economy, despite it slipping into recession in July-September.

The dollar rose to 118.15 yen from 118.01 yen in New York, its highest level since August 2007. The euro bought 148.13 yen against 148.11 yen in US trade, its strongest since October 2008. The single currency was also at US$1.2533 compared with US$1.2551.

The yen has plunged this month after the Bank of Japan ramped up its own vast asset-purchasing scheme on October 31.

Traders were given a lift by news that Japan's trade deficit narrowed by more than a third year-on-year in October, helped by higher exports and lower oil prices, which reduced the country's massive energy bill.

Oil prices were mixed. US benchmark West Texas Intermediate for December fell seven cents to US$74.51 while Brent crude for January rose six US cents to US$78.16.

Gold was at US$1,181.27 an ounce, compared with US$1,200.30 late Wednesday.


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