Jobless Americans Rattle Asian Markets

Asian markets were mixed Friday. In Japan the Nikkei 225 Index slid 0.9% to 10,499 and in China the Shanghai Composite Index slipped 1.3% to 2,791. Hong Kong's Hang Seng inched up 0.2% to end the day at 24,283.

Rising applications in the U.S. for unemployment claims sent Asian shares lower today. The Labor Department announced that 35,000 more people applied for jobless benefits last week, bringing the total number to 445,000. These numbers could be explained away by holiday-related excuses like a backlog of paperwork and seasonal jobs coming to an end. But when combined with dismal reports like the one released by RealtyTrac showing that there were more than 1 million foreclosures on American homes last year, and that banks filed for foreclosure on 2.9 million properties, the economic recovery starts looking a lot less solid.

Japanese Exporters Fall on U.S. Unemployment Stats

Fearing that U.S. consumers may put off purchasing that 47-inch flat screen television or new car, shares in Japanese exporters slumped. Casio Computer tumbled 4.4%, Canon, heavily dependent on sales in the U.S., fell 1.3% and Sony, maker of Bravia televisions, slid 1.2%. Other camera makers also closed lower with Olympus diving 3.1% and Konica Minolta losing 2.5%.

Car makers also suffered with Mazda slumping 2.3%, Nissan falling 1.4%, Honda losing 0.7% and Isuzu edging down 0.5%. Toyota, however, managed a 0.4% advance.

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Big gains by Fast Retailing helped stem losses on the Nikkei. The stock surged 6.4%, getting a boost from Nomura Securities, which raised the stock's rating to buy. The company plans to counter losses by cutting expenses, says Bloomberg. In Japan, sales at the company's Uniqlo shops are faltering, but abroad, where the brand's basics have become staples in many wardrobes, sales are booming. Today's gains should help Fast Retailing's president, Tadashi Yanai, maintain his position as Japan's richest man.

Commodity-related shares sank in China after metals prices took a tumble. There's also a growing fear that the government may introduce price controls affecting the metals markets. Jiangxi Copper nose-dived 8%, Zijin Mining plunged 3.2% and Aluminum Corp. of China slid 2%.

The shipping companies that transport all these metals around the world also lost value with Cosco Shipping dropping 3%, China Shipping Container Lines declining 2.5% and China Shipping Development down 1.6%.

In Hong Kong some Chinese banks headed higher as analysts at Nomura remained bullish on the sector. Bank of China rallied 2.9% and Industrial & Commercial Bank of China rose 1%. But there were losses too, with Bank of China Hong Kong plunging 2.9% and Bank of Communications slipping 1%.

Other big gainers on the Hang Seng included Cheung Kong, rocketing up 2.8% and New World Development, advancing 2%. Wharf Holdings and Hutchison Whampoa also fared well, both shooting up 1.7%, while Internet company Tencent continued its rise, adding 3.6% to yesterday's gains.

Li & Fung investors were not scared off by fears that European economic instability will head off shoppers, or that American's will snap their purses shut. Shares advanced 0.8%. In fact, Li & Fung-sourced merchandise lines the shelves of low-priced behemoths like Walmart and Target, precisely the places where cash-strapped Americans love to shop.