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US economic, corporate hopes push markets higher

LONDON (AP) -- Global stocks pushed higher on Wednesday on evidence that U.S. consumer spending is withstanding tax increases and on the back of upbeat corporate news.

The latest figures showed U.S. retail sales rose 0.1 percent last month despite a hike in payroll taxes. While the rise was the smallest in three months, analysts said it nevertheless showed underlying resilience in consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of the world's largest economy.

Market sentiment was also supported by news that Comcast Corp, America's biggest cable TV operator, agreed to buy half of NBCUniversal for $16.7 billion. Investors took the deal as a vote of confidence in the economy and the media sector.

By midafternoon in Europe, Britain's FTSE 100 was up 0.7 percent at 6,380.36 while Germany's DAX was up 0.9 percent to 7,729.53. France's CAC-40 was 0.5 percent higher at 3,706.

European indexes were also supported by figures showing an increase in industrial production in the 17-country eurozone and a pledge by the Bank of England to keep supporting economic growth despite an expected rise in inflation.

As Wall Street opened, the Dow was flat at 14,012.40. Investors were cautious to buy into the index, which is only about 150 points from its record closing high of 14,164.53.

The S&P 500, which includes a broader range of stocks and more accurately reflects overall market sentiment, was up 0.3 percent to 1,523.60.

U.S. earnings were encouraging on Wednesday, with gains by Deere & Co. and Duke Energy, while European reports were distinctly mixed. Dutch insurer ING said it will slash another 2,400 jobs while French bank Societe Generale booked a loss in the fourth quarter and said it will make savings cuts.

French car maker PSA Peugeot Citroen posted a record loss in 2012 but its shares rose 6 percent as it said it was now ready to benefit from a recovery in demand next year after painful job cuts.

Earlier in Asia, Japan's Nikkei index tumbled as the yen strengthened against the dollar following a pledge by finance ministers from the world's seven major advanced economies to refrain from intentionally weakening their currencies. The Nikkei 225 dropped 1 percent to close at 11,251.41.

The Group of Seven nations said in a statement that they remained committed to exchange rates driven by the market.

Traders interpreted the statement as a message directed at Japan, where the yen has plummeted against the dollar since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office and pushed the central bank for ultra-loose monetary policy. Central bank governor Masaaki Shirakawa, who has appeared at odds with Abe's views, is resigning next month, giving the government an opportunity to find a successor more sympathetic to its aims.

After falling sharply against the yen on Tuesday, the dollar stabilized on Wednesday, trading 0.1 percent higher at 93.53 yen. The euro, which like the yen rose against the dollar after the G-7 statement, retreated 0.1 percent to $1.3445.

Glenn Levine, senior economist at Moody's Analytics, said Japan's steps to boost its economy offer promise but come with the risk of sparking a currency war.

He noted that the U.S. Federal Reserve and Bank of England have taken even more aggressive steps but have been “less vocal, and have thus avoided setting off currency alarms.”

The Bank of Japan begins a two-day policy meeting Wednesday but analysts said no new initiatives were expected in light of the impending leadership change.

Elsewhere, Australian stocks closed at their highest level since September 2008. The S&P/ASX 200 gained 0.9 percent to 5,003.70. South Korea's Kospi advanced 1.6 percent while indexes in Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines also rose.

Markets in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam were closed for Lunar New Year holidays.

In commodity markets, the benchmark crude oil contract for March delivery was up 22 cents to $97.73 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 48 cents on Tuesday.


Pamela Sampson in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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