Asian shares edge higher

HONG KONG - Asian shares mostly edged higher Wednesday following a positive lead from Wall Street, where stocks advanced on encouraging US economic data before a keynote speech this week by the Federal Reserve chief.

The dollar hit multi-month highs against the euro and yen after a surge in US housing construction boosted optimism over the state of the world's top economy.

Tokyo ended flat, edging up 4.66 points to 15,454.45 after data showed a rebound in exports helped narrow Japan's trade deficit in July. But the shortfall still came in worse than expected after a marked slowdown in the world's number three economy.

Seoul also ended flat, inching up 1.64 points to 2,072.78 but Shanghai slid 0.23%, or 5.12 points, to 2,240.21.

Hong Kong held on to its gains a day after hitting a six-year high, closing up 0.15%, or 36.81 points, at 25,159.76.

Sydney rose 0.19%, or 10.8 points, to 5,634.6, but BHP Billiton's shares slumped almost 4% as investors fled over the lack of a stock buyback and the global mining giant's demerger plans announced a day earlier.

Taipei gained 0.48%, or 44.27 points, to 9,288.05 and Manila climbed 0.19%, or 13.74 points, to 7,096.49.

Kuala Lumpur rose 6.73 points, or 0.36%, to 1,878.89, Jakarta ended up 0.48%, or 25.00 points, at 5,190.17 and Singapore rose 0.22%, or 7.22 points, to 3,323.65.

The incremental gains in Asian markets followed a positive lead from Wall Street, where the Dow Jones Industrial Average finished up 0.48% at 16,919.59 on Tuesday after new upbeat US data.

Housing starts in the world's biggest economy jumped 15.7% in July to their strongest level since last November, while new building permits rose 8.1%.

The figures raise expectations of an earlier than expected US interest rate rise, which tends to boost the dollar.

In late afternoon Asian trade, the greenback rose to 103.23 yen at one stage, its strongest level in four months, and well up from 102.91 in New York.

The dollar rally also came ahead of Wednesday's release of minutes from the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee's last meeting.

Analysts will pore over the minutes for signs of whether the Fed might accelerate the timeline for raising rates, now expected in the second half of 2015.

Traders were looking ahead to a speech on Friday by Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen for any hint of a change to the US central bank's interest rate plans.

Last month Ms Yellen said the Fed would hold its near-zero interest rate policy until the US economy strengthened, but may raise rates if the jobs market continues to improve.

The euro weakened to nine-month low of US$1.3303 from $1.3321 in US trade, while it strengthened to 137.29 yen against 137.07 yen.

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