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HONG KONG: Australian and Japanese stocks pushed higher on Friday on positive signals from both economies, even as rising uncertainty about Egypt kept oil prices around the $100 mark.

With most other Asian stock markets closed for Lunar New Year, Sydney's S&P/ASX 200 index rose 0.86 percent, while Tokyo's Nikkei was up 1.14 percent.

Japanese stocks were boosted by news of a planned merger between the country's largest steel-maker Nippon Steel and third-ranked Sumitomo Metal Industries, which would create the world's second-largest steel firm.

Readers said the plan boosted prospects for consolidation generally in the under-pressure Japanese economy, while the market was also supported by a run of strong corporate earnings reports, including from top banking group Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group.

Sumitomo Metal jumped 16 percent in Friday morning trade, with Nippon Steel up nearly 10 percent.

"There are hopes that (the steel sector) realignment will spread to other sectors," Okasan Securities strategist Hideyuki Ishiguro told Dow Jones Newswires. "The foreign investor perspective on Japanese firms is becoming more positive."

Meanwhile was supported by relatively positive comments from the Reserve Bank of Australia.

The central bank said it would "look through" the effects on the economy of catastrophic floods in December and January, keeping policy focused on containing the country's mining boom and a rapidly tightening labour market.

The RBA's February monetary policy statement said economic growth would be weaker in the near-term due to the impact of the floods, but come back strongly in the second half of 2011 as rebuilding efforts in Queensland gather momentum, mining investment grows and commodity prices remain elevated.

Traders generally were looking ahead to January jobs data from the United States, due out later Friday, for cues on the health of the global economy.

World oil prices remained high in Asian trade, with the market under pressure from the ongoing political crisis in Egypt.

New York's main futures contract, light sweet crude for March, was up five cents at $90.91.

Brent North Sea crude for March advanced 25 cents to $102.01. In overnight London trade the contract hit $103.37 at one point, its highest since September 26, 2008, before settling lower.

The greenback stayed in a narrow range in Asian trade.

The euro recorded its sharpest decline in 10 weeks on Thursday from $1.38 to around $1.36 as the head of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, appeared to step back from more aggressive warnings about inflation risks he and fellow ECB officials made in January, which helped propel the euro higher.

The dollar stood at 81.55 yen, little changed from 81.59 yen in New York.

The euro bought $1.3622 and 111.09 yen, off slightly from $1.3630 and 112.23 yen in New York.




Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2011

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