By Hans Greimel
The Associated Press
TOKYO - Asian investors offered little holiday cheer Wednesday with Tokyo stocks leading most markets lower on weak Christmas spending in the United States.
Shares in Tokyo, one of the few markets open Wednesday, edged down, following a retreat on Wall Street. Taipei stocks finished down 1 percent, while the Bangkok bourse was only marginally higher.
Other major Asian markets were closed for Christmas, as were U.S. and European markets.
In Tokyo, the benchmark 225-issue Nikkei Stock Average closed down 11.23 points, or 0.13 percent, to 8,501.14 points. Decliners included automakers Honda, Toyota and Nissan. Technology bellwethers Hitachi, Toshiba, Sony and Mitsubishi Electric - all among the day's most heavily traded shares - ended lower.
Last week, the Nikkei nearly matched 19-year closing lows last week before staging a meek rebound in recent sessions, including a 1.25 percent advance on Tuesday.
Wednesday's selling came as traders cashed in recent gains on the heels of losses in U.S markets spurred by a tepid durable-goods report indicating orders to U.S. factories for big ticket goods fell 1.4 percent in November.
It was more bad news for investors already worried about sluggish holiday sales. Japan's export-driven economy leans heavily on U.S. consumption to fuel growth. Japan is slogging through a decade-long economic slump with little sign of reviving soon.
Trading was light throughout Asia ahead of New Year's amid continued uncertainty about Japan's weakened economy and the possibility of war in Iraq.
A chill was also cast by concern over mounting tension between North Korea and the United States. North Korea is reopening more mothballed atomic energy plants and warned Tuesday that the nuclear crisis is spiraling toward "an extremely dangerous phase" because of Washington's hard-line policies.
In Taiwan, the Taipei average closed down 60.07 points, or 1.32 percent, at 4484.43. Shares on the Stock Exchange of Thailand were mostly flat in early trading, without fresh positive signs to boost the index, according to analysts.
The SET index was marginally up 0.11 points, or 0.03 percent, at 351.04 points. The blue-chip SET 50 index was at 22.57, up 0.04 percent.
"The market is expected to move in a tight range due to the holiday mood and a lack of positive leads," said Phaibool Rachniyom, senior vice president at ABN Amro Asia Securities.
In Bangkok, shares on the Stock Exchange of Thailand eked out gains of 2.48 points, or 0.7 percent, to finish at 353.41. The blue-chip SET 50 index was up 0.13 point, or 0.6 percent, at 22.69 points.
Trading was a paltry 517 million shares worth 1.52 billion baht, about $35.3 million - the least active day of trading since November 2001.
In currencies, the dollar bought 120.42 yen at 5 p.m. Wednesday, down 0.02 yen from late Tuesday in Tokyo, but above its level of 120.33 yen in New York overnight Tuesday. It traded in a narrow range between 120.20 yen and 120.48 yen Wednesday in Tokyo.
The yen gained ground despite continued efforts by Finance Minister Masajuro Shiokawa to talk down the Japanese currency versus the U.S. dollar.
A weak yen helps make Japanese exports more competitive in foreign markets and increases the value of overseas revenues when converted to yen.
The euro bought 124.22 yen late Wednesday, up from 123.71 yen Tuesday. Against the dollar, the euro was at US$1.0324, up from 97.34 U.S. cents.
The yield on the benchmark 10-year government bond fell to 0.9200 percent late Wednesday, from 0.9350 percent Tuesday. Its price rose 0.14 to 100.73.
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