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Asia stocks mostly higher after Wall St record close; markets await Fed chief Yellen's speech

HONG KONG - Most Asian stock markets inched higher Friday after a record day on Wall Street powered by upbeat data that adds to evidence the world's biggest economy is gaining strength. Gains were tempered as investors awaited a meeting of central bankers that might shed light on the timing of U.S. interest rate hikes.

KEEPING SCORE: Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 couldn't sustain early gains, retreating 0.2 per cent to 15,550.28 by early afternoon as the yen strengthened. South Korea's Kospi added 0.6 per cent to 2,055.71. Hong Kong's Hang Seng advanced 0.3 per cent to 25,073.76 and the Shanghai Composite in mainland China gained 0.2 per cent to 2,235.80. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 was up 0.3 per cent to 5,653.70.

YELLEN SPEECH: Attention will turn to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is set to headline an annual conference of central bankers and other policymakers from around the globe. Her speech on labour markets will be parsed by investors looking for any hints on the timing of interest rate hikes. Economists widely expect her to stick to her position that the job market isn't yet strong enough to allow the Fed to begin raising rates, which means markets will stay higher.

DRAGHI'S TURN: The Jackson Hole meeting's other big speech will be given by European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi. He's expected to give his view on the eurozone economy, which is stagnating even as rates are ultralow and stimulus is plentiful. "Overall, the tale of two speeches today is likely to be that monetary policy stimulus is still here for a while yet in the US, and a very long while in Europe," said Rabobank analyst Michael Every.

JOBS AND HOMES: U.S. unemployment benefit claims fell by 14,000 last week to 298,000 while existing homes sales rose in July to 5.15 million, the highest annual rate since September, providing further signs of the economy's rebound.

WALL STREET: The S&P 500 rose 0.3 per cent to close at 1,992.37, which is four points above the previous closing high set on July 24. The Dow rose 0.4 per cent to 17,039.49, the first time it has finished above 17,000 since July 24. The Nasdaq composite rose 0.1 per cent to 4,532.10.

CURRENCIES: The euro strengthened to $1.3286 from $1.3278 in late trading Thursday. The dollar weakened to 103.76 yen from 103.84 yen. A stronger yen makes Japanese stocks pricier for overseas investors.

ENERGY: Benchmark crude oil for October delivery fell 21 cents to $93.75 in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 51 cents to settle at $93.96 on Thursday. Brent crude shed 12 cents to $102.51 on the ICE exchange in London.

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