Hong Kong leads Asian gains

Stocks in Asia advanced Thursday, with Japanese shares rising amid an improved economic outlook and some strong earnings reports, while the Hong Kong market climbed as traders returned after a holiday-extended weekend.

In Japan, the Nikkei 225 Index added 55.87 points, or 0.5%, to 11,307.28

In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index returned to trading after a long weekend, with a gain of 198.09 points, or 0.9%, to 23,413.25

Banks and property developers were notably higher, with heavyweight HSBC Holdings PLC rising 1.5% and Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd. higher by 2.5%.

China Overseas Land & Investment Ltd. rose 2.5%, and China Resources Land Ltd. climbed 3.3%.

Deal news was also lending a hand in Hong Kong, with energy major Cnooc Ltd. climbing 1.9% after it received approval from U.S. regulators for its $15 billion acquisition of Canada’s Nexen Inc.

In other merger-and-acquisition-related moves, Alumina Ltd. jumped 7.5% in Sydney after Citic Resources Ltd. announced it will take a 13% stake in the firm for 452 million Australian dollars ($468 million U.S.). Shares of Citic Resources gained 0.9% in Hong Kong.

Also helping the Australian share market, Rio Tinto Ltd. climbed 2.3% ahead of its earnings report, while rival miner BHP Billiton Ltd. gained 2.6%.

Earnings gave some impetus to the Tokyo market, with brewer Asahi Group Holdings Ltd. jumping 5.8% after posting a record fiscal-year profit.

Yokohama Rubber Co. surged 12.3% after reporting its fiscal-year net profit more than doubled to ¥32.6 billion.

Japan’s economy, meanwhile, remained in a recession during the last quarter of 2012, data released on Thursday showed. The country chalked up a third straight quarter of contraction, with gross domestic product shrinking 0.1%, missing economist forecasts for a 0.1% rise.

GDP is a lagging indicator, however, and the Bank of Japan offered a more upbeat assessment of the Japanese economy after its monthly policy meeting Thursday. The bank upgraded its economic assessment for February to say that the economy appears to have stopped weakening.

As expected, the Bank of Japan also kept its overnight call rate unchanged at its current ultra-low level and stuck to its previously-announced plan to increase the size of its asset purchases to ¥101 trillion yen by the end of the year.

After the meeting, the dollar reached 93.48 yen, little changed from the ¥93.42 recorded in late North American trading on Wednesday.

In South Korean trading, Kia Motors Corp. climbed 0.2%, while affiliate Hyundai Motor Co. ended flat.

In other markets

Korea’s Kospi Index eked up 3.54 points, or 0.2%, to 1,979.61

The Singapore Straits Times Index shed 10.57 points, or 0.3%, to 3,290.47

In New Zealand, the NZX 50 index gained 17.80 points, or 0.4%, to 4,239.20

In Australia, the S&P/ASX 200 prospered 33.23 points, or 0.7%, to 5,036.88, for its highest finish since Sept. 8, 2008, a week before Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy filing.