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Asian stocks mostly lower on Portugal debt fears

By Pamela Sampson

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 10 2011 10:33 p.m. MST

Cristina Povoa, a Portuguese broker, talks on the phone while working Monday, Jan. 10, 2011 in Lisbon. Europe's debt crisis looked increasingly likely to claim another victim on Monday, as Portugal's borrowing rates spiked to euro-era highs amid reports Germany and France are pushing it to accept outside help and prevent contagion to other countries.

Francisco Seco, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

BANGKOK — Asian stock markets were mostly lower Tuesday, weighed down by worries that debt-ridden Portugal would have to seek a bailout even as Japan pledged help to ease Europe's financial crisis.

Oil prices hovered above $89 a barrel in Asia as traders eyed repairs on a shutdown Alaskan pipeline which has cut crude production from the biggest U.S. state. In currencies, the dollar strengthened against the yen and the euro.

Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average lost 0.2 percent to 10,522.11 and China's Shanghai Composite Index edged down 0.3 percent to 2,782.81.

South Korea's Kospi declined 0.1 percent to 2,079.08. Shares were also lower in Australia, Malaysia and Thailand.

But Hong Kong's Hang Seng index gained 1 percent to 23,755.19, largely on the strength of property shares. Stocks in Singapore, New Zealand, Taiwan and India were also higher.

Sentiment was restrained across Asia amid growing speculation that Portugal would be forced into a bailout, joining Greece and Ireland in getting massive financial help from its European partners and the International Monetary Fund. Portugal is to sell bonds on Wednesday, with Italy and Spain scheduled to sell bonds later in the week. If the sales go poorly, it could further weaken confidence in Europe's financial system.

Portuguese officials have sought the help of China, which has already used its foreign currency reserves to buy Greek and Spanish debt.

Japan on Tuesday also said it would consider bond purchases, with Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda announcing that Japan is "considering buying more than 20 percent of bonds" under a rescue fund to help Ireland. The European Financial Stability Facility, the eurozone's rescue fund, is set to issue debt worth several billions of euros later this month to finance the cost of an international bailout of Ireland.

But analysts were skeptical that a reversal of the crisis was at hand.

"Everyone is concerned about what's happening in Europe. Since Friday, the markets have been weighed down by Portugal and Spain and the upcoming bond sales," said Tom Kaan, head of sales at Louis Capital Markets in Hong Kong.

The other worry dragging down markets was U.S. unemployment.

On Friday, the Labor Department said that employers added fewer jobs in December than analysts expected. That report helped push the S&P down 0.2 percent. The unemployment rate did come down — to 9.4 percent from 9.8 — but that was partly because people gave up looking for work. The unemployment rate in the world's No. 1 economy has now topped 9 percent for 20 months in a row, the longest such streak on record.

"Unemployment is (President Barack) Obama's problem. What is the U.S. government doing about it? He has got to get the U.S. government involved in massive employment, or at least a semblance of stability on the numbers," Kaan said.

The European debt crisis also pressured U.S. stocks with the Dow Jones industrial average losing 37.31 points, or 0.3 percent, to 11,637.45 on Monday, falling for the third straight day.

In currencies, the dollar rose to 83.08 yen in Tokyo from 82.69 in New York late Monday. The euro dropped to $1.2939 from $1.2945.

Benchmark oil for February delivery rose 3 cents to $89.28 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

AP writer Shino Yuasa contributed from Tokyo.

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