Asian stock markets mostly up as Bernanke comments, US data outweigh Europe woes

SEOUL, South Korea – Asian stock markets mostly rose Wednesday after the Federal Reserve chief played down risks from the U.S. central bank’s low interest rate policies, offsetting worries that Italy’s indecisive election result will rekindle Europe’s debt crisis.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng rose 0.5 per cent to 22,642.27 and South Korea’s Kospi added 0.3 per cent to 2,005.91. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 gained 0.7 per cent to 5,040.20. Shares in mainland China, Taiwan and Indonesia also rose.

Japanese stocks were the only losers in Asia as the yen strengthened against the U.S. dollar following several months of weakness that boosted exporters. Japan’s Nikkei 225 fell 0.8 per cent to 11,310.45.

In testimony to Congress on Tuesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke expressed confidence that the central bank’s low-rate policies currently pose little risk of causing runaway inflation or a stock market bubble. That eased recent jitters the Fed would start to withdraw its super easy monetary policy.

U.S. economic indicators also gave Asian markets a lift. Home sales rose to the highest level in more than four years last month and American consumers showed confidence for the first time in three months in February.

Yet stock market gains in Asia remained modest, showing that investors have not fully regained their appetite for risky assets ahead of looming automatic spending cuts due to start Friday in the U.S.

And with Italy emerging from elections on Tuesday with no clear winner, there are lingering uncertainties about the fate of deficit and debt reduction measures in one of Europe’s biggest economies.

The Italian election result drove markets in Europe markedly lower. If Italian parties fail to form a governing coalition, new elections would be required, causing more uncertainty and a leadership vacuum.

On Tuesday, Italy’s FTSE MIB index fell nearly 800 points, or 5 per cent, to 15,552. Germany’s DAX was down 176 points, or 2.3 per cent, to 7,597 and the CAC-40 in France fell 99 points, or 2.7 per cent, to 3,621.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 115.96 points, or 0.8 per cent, to 13,900.13 on Tuesday. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 9.09 points, or 0.6 per cent, to 1,496.94. The Nasdaq composite index rose 13.40 points, or 0.4 per cent, to 3,129.65.

In currency markets, the euro was trading at $1.3066. The dollar weakened to 91.99 yen.

Benchmark crude for April delivery was up 24 cents at $92.87 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.