Asia Stocks Mostly Lower As Investors Await Cues

Asia stocks traded mostly lower in a volatile session Thursday, with investors cautious ahead of key central-bank decisions and economic data.

Japan was among the few gainers, as the Nikkei Stock Average  closed 0.3% higher. The benchmark broke above 12,000 for the first time since September 2008, but fell back below the psychologically important level late in the afternoon to end at 11,968.08.

Chinese markets saw their early gains disappear, with Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index down 0.2% and the Shanghai Composite Index  lower by 0.4%.

Also on the downside, Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 index  finished 0.2% lower, and South Korea’s Kospi  fell 0.9%.

“People are waiting for the European Central Bank and the Bank of England,” said Kim Eng Securities head of sales trading Andrew Sullivan, referring to policy meetings at those central banks due to take place later Thursday.

Sullivan also cited caution ahead of the U.S. monthly jobs report Friday and Chinese economic numbers due out Friday and Saturday, saying that “with these markets near highs, people are worried ahead of the data in case there’s a bad figure.”

The Dow industrials  reached a record high Tuesday, and the U.S. blue-chip index moved further into unchartered territory Wednesday after an improvement in a private-payrolls growth and a smaller-than-expected drop in factory orders.

Dow futures  were pointing to a flat start on Thursday, while S&P 500 futures  were 1.20 points lower.

As on Wall Street, the Tokyo stock market has been on tear lately, taking off late last year on expectations of a new government willing to take stronger action to tackling deflation, in part by pushing more loosening from the central bank.

The Bank of Japan stayed on hold with policy on Thursday ahead of a change in governance at the central bank later in the month, but many economists expect action at next month’s meeting.

Exporters helped support the market in Tokyo, as the dollar traded just below the ¥94 level Thursday afternoon, up from the lower ¥93 range a day earlier.

Among the blue-chip exporters, Mazda Motor Co.   rose 2.8%, Nintendo Co.   traded higher by 5.2%, and Bridgestone Corp.   advanced 3.9%.

Olympus Corp.   rallied 5.6% after a Nikkei news report said the firm will slash more of its interest-bearing debt load than planned by the end of the next fiscal year in March 2014

Steel makers slipped, however, with JFE Holdings Inc.    down 1% and Kobe Steel Ltd.    lower by 1.6% after a separate Nikkei report that the group will pay 33% more for iron ore in the April-June quarter than in the first three months of the year, due to higher iron-ore spot prices.

The recent gains for ore caught the attention of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, which said late Wednesday that the price spikes in imported iron ore to China were due in part to unreasonable pricing mechanisms.

Of Australian iron-ore miners — key suppliers to the Chinese market — BHP Billiton Ltd.    traded unchanged, and Rio Tinto Ltd.   climbed 0.1%.

Elsewhere in Sydney, Telstra Corp.   fell 0.7%, and Westpac Banking Corp.   declined 1.2% to pressure the broader market.

China banks lose ground

Banks were mostly lower on the Chinese mainland, with China Merchants Bank Co.   down 1.6% and Agricultural Bank of China Ltd.    falling 1.4%.

Lenders similarly lost ground in Hong Kong, with heavyweight HSBC Holdings PLC    down 0.8% after falling earlier in the week after the bank reported earnings.

China Construction Bank Corp.    lost 1.6% and Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd.    gave up 1.1%.

But volatile property stocks staged a recovery in Hong Kong, with Hang Lung Properties Ltd.    and Wharf Holdings Ltd.    each up 2.1%.

South Korean exporters were lower, in contrast to their Japanese rivals, with Kia Motors Corp.   down 0.4%, and Hyundai Motor Co.  lower by 1.6%.

Samsung Electronics Co.   fell 3% to weigh on the market.