- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

TOKYO, Feb. 19 (UPI) — Stock prices on the Tokyo Stock Exchange ended slightly lower in fairly active trading Wednesday, pressured by weakness in the banking sector.

The blue-chip Nikkei Stock Average, which lost 78.92 points during the previous session, slipped 14.53 points, or 0.2 percent, to 8,678.44.

Analysts noted the Nikkei has faced strong resistance around the 8,800 level. It has rose above 8,800 three times this year, most recently on Monday, only to be knocked down below that level by the close.

The broader Topix index, which slipped 5.00 points in the previous session, eased 3.11 points, or 0.4 percent, to 853.59.

Volume dropped to an estimated 930.96 million shares from the one billion shares changing hands on Tuesday.

Declines outpaced advances 856 to 485.

Analysts said the market eased on weakness in several exporters, banks, insurers and chip-related issues.

Japanese banks and insurers are being pressured as professional traders rush to offload shares ahead of book-closing on March 31 to reduce their exposure to market swings. Also, corporate pension funds have been selling widely held issues as they get ready to return part of their fund obligations to the state later this year.

Chip-related issues faced selling after North American makers of semiconductor equipment reported a book-to-bill ratio of 0.92 percent in January, a sign that firms continue to see weakness in the industry. That compared with December's ratio of 0.94 percent.

Analysts said investors are now focusing on the weekend meeting of the Group of Seven central bankers and finance ministers in Paris for signs of possible cooperation by authorities to limit any damage to the world economy should war break out in Iraq.

The market is also keeping an eye out for clues on who will be the new Bank of Japan governor. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is expected to announce his pick by the end of this month.

Investors are keen to see if the new central bank head will take a more aggressive stance on monetary policy.

In trading, consumer electronics giant Sony Corp. rose 1.3 percent, Japan's biggest non-life insurer Millea fell 2.5 percent, UFJ Holdings Inc., Japan's fourth-largest bank, dropped 8.4 percent and Advantest Corp., Japan's biggest maker of chip-testing equipment, fell 3.1 percent.

Elsewhere in Asia, stocks ended slightly higher on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, lifted by strength in telecom issues. The blue-chip Hang Seng Index, which added 13.37 points in the previous session, rose another 30.58 points, or 0.3 percent, to 9,427.63.

In trading, Hong Kong's fifth largest bank, Bank of East Asia, rose 2.1 percent, property development firm Hang Lung Properties rose 2 percent, China Mobile rose 1.4 percent, China Unicom rose 1 percent.

Prices ended lower on the Taiwan Stock Exchange. The key Weighted Price Index of the Taiwan Stock Exchange, which dropped 99.77 points in the previous session, lost another 54.48 points, or 1.2 percent, to 4,550.83.

Non-technology issues led the market lower, with shares of China Steel falling 3 percent. But Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing added 0.2 percent.

Prices ended higher in fairly active trading on the Singapore Stock Exchange. The Straits Times Index, which fell 7.38 points during the previous session, gained 21.72 points, or 1.7 percent, to 1,315.53.

Prices eased in moderate trading on the South Korean Stock Exchange. The Korea Composite Stock Price Index, or Kospi, which added 1.58 points during the previous session, slipped 2.62 points, or 0.4 percent, to 600.83.

SK Telecom added 0.6 percent, SK Securities lost 1.2 percent and chip giant Samsung Electronics rose 1.4 percent.

Elsewhere, prices ended higher on the Australian Stock Exchange, supported by Tuesday's rally on Wall Street. The blue-chip All Ordinaries Index, which eased 0.60 point during the previous session, gained 21.00 points, or 0.7 percent, to 2,849.90.

In trading, Qantas Airways rose 1.3 percent on reports the country's flagship carrier may cut 2,500 staffers as part of a contingency plan to be implemented to protect profit margins if war breaks out in Iraq.

Santos lost 1.2 percent after the oil and gas producer posted record sales for 2002 but warned that sales volume would likely fall by 2 to 3 percent in 2003.

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