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Asian stock markets rise after Fed chief Bernanke says bond-buying program supports US economy

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BANGKOK - Asian stocks posted modest gains Tuesday after Fed chief Ben Bernanke said the central bank's bond buying is providing crucial support for the U.S. economy, suggesting it will continue despite divisions with the Fed.

The Nikkei 225 in Tokyo, meanwhile, reached its highest intraday level in more than nine months as investors scooped up shares amid a weaker yen and major stimulus measures from the new government to help Japan's struggling economy.

The Nikkei rose 1.3 per cent to 10,936.14. Hong Kong's Hang Seng rose 0.1 per cent to 23,443.35. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 added 0.2 per cent to 4,726.60. South Korea's Kospi fell 0.5 per cent to 1,997.15.

In a speech in the U.S. on Monday, Bernanke said the U.S. Federal Reserve's bond-buying program, dubbed quantitative easing, was providing key support for the economy and made no mention of winding the program down, even though some Fed officials recently said they favour doing that.

The U.S. central bank has been buying $85 billion a month in Treasurys and mortgage bonds to try to keep borrowing costs low and encourage more spending.

Analysts at Credit Agricole CIB in Hong Kong said in an email commentary that markets found some relief in Bernanke's speech as it did not repeat the views of some Fed officials in hinting at an early ending of quantitative easing.

This week, investors will assess a slew of data for signs of growth in the U.S. and China, the world's two largest economies. Retail sales in the U.S. for December are due later Tuesday, as are quarterly earnings from big U.S. banks including JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Bank of America.

Investors will be scrutinizing revenues to assess whether the drawn-out "fiscal cliff" debate had an impact on consumer spending. A series of tax hikes and spending cuts, due to come into effect Jan. 1, were only averted by a last-minute deal.

On Friday, China will issue fourth-quarter growth data for 2012 as well as GDP growth for the year. Factory output, investment and retail sales will also be released. China reported last week a rise in exports and imports, a sign of higher demand both inside and outside the country.

On Wall Street, Apple pulled down the Standard & Poor's 500 index following reports that demand for the iPhone may be weaker than expected. The S&P 500 fell 0.1 per cent to 1,470.68. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 0.1 per cent to 13,507.32. The Nasdaq composite index fell 0.3 per cent to 3,117.50.

Benchmark oil for February delivery was down 9 cents to $94.05 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 58 cents to finish at $94.15 per barrel on the Nymex on Monday.

In currencies, the euro rose to $1.3383 from $1.3378 late Monday in New York. The dollar rose to 89.58 yen from 89.41 yen.

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Follow Pamela Sampson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/pamelasampson

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