Korean shares first trade inching up

Financeroll – South Korean shares ended with fractional gains after a choppy first trading session of 2012, as data showing a stronger-than expected growth in December exports supported the market despite contraction in monthly manufacturing activity.

Taiwanese shares fell sharply, however, pressured after weak manufacturing data and concerns about unresolved debt troubles in the euro zone.

Trading volumes were thin as several major regional markets, including those in Japan, China, Australia and Singapore, were closed for a holiday. U.S. and U.K. stock markets were also slated to shut Monday.

“We expect Korea to move from a bear to a bull market this year — the reverse of 2011,” Shaun Cochran, a market strategist at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets, wrote in a note to clients.

South Korea’s Kospi ended with a gain of less than 0.1% at 1,826.37, after moving in both directions during the session. The benchmark lost 11% of its value in 2011.

The brokerage expects a “major bear-market low” around the second quarter of this y ear, before the “best buying opportunity the country has presented investors in more than three years,” Cochran said.

The performance came after data released by HSBC showed South Korea’s manufacturing activity shrank for a fifth-straight month in December, with the monthly Purchasing Managers’ Index printing at 46.4, down from 47.1 in November. A reading below 50 shows a contraction, while one above shows an expansion. See report on Asia PMI results.

On the brighter side, data released Sunday showed South Korea’s exports rose a better-than-expected 12.5% in December from the year-ago month, helping the nation record a $4 billion trade surplus.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Taiex tumbled 1.7% to 6,952.21.

Taiwan’s December PMI came in at 47.1, an improvement from the previous month’s 43.9 reading, but still below the threshold level of 50, a separate HSBC survey showed.

Shares of Cathay Financial Holding Co. dropped 3.1%, Asia Cement Corp. fell 1.8%, and China Airlines Ltd. declined 2.7%

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