Asian stocks up ahead of US 'fiscal cliff' talks

Asian stock markets rose Friday, hours before President Barack Obama and key lawmakers were to meet at the White House to try to hammer out an 11th-hour budget compromise to avert the so-called fiscal cliff.

Lawmakers have until Monday night to hammer out a budget agreement before hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic tax increases and deep cuts to government spending kick in. Such a drastic reshuffling of money could throw the U.S. into another recession, economists have warned.

Failure to avoid the fiscal cliff doesn't necessarily mean tax increases and spending cuts would become permanent, since the new Congress could pass legislation canceling them retroactively after it begins its work next year.

Japan's Nikkei 225 index marched higher, hitting its highest level since March 20, 2011. The Tokyo benchmark rose 0.8 percent to 10,403.01.

Investors have been cheering newly named Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his calls for more public works spending to reinvigorate the economy. He also wants the Bank of Japan to raise its inflation target from 1 to 2 percent to drag the country out of two decades of deflation, or steadily declining prices that have deadened economic activity.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng rose less than 0.1 percent to 22,653.86, while South Korea's Kospi added 0.3 percent to 1,993.48. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 gained 0.6 percent to 4,675.40.

Markets got some lift from optimistic data out of the U.S. and a statement from the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, who said in an interview that the worst of the debt crisis in the 17 European Union countries that use the euro appears to be over.

In the U.S., the average number of people seeking unemployment benefits over the past month fell to the lowest level since March 2008, a sign that the job market is healing.

Worries over U.S. budget negotiations sent Wall Street slightly lower on Thursday. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 0.1 percent to 13,096.31. The Standard & Poor's 500 fell 0.1 percent to 1,418.10, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 0.1 percent to 2,985.91.

Benchmark oil for February delivery rose 39 cents to $91.26 in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell 11 cents to finish at $90.87 per barrel.

In currencies, the euro rose to $1.3245 from $1.3240 late Thursday in New York. The dollar gained to 86.43 yen from 86.02 yen.

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A woman walks by an electronic stock board of a securities firm in Tokyo, Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012. Asian markets have risen amid optimism that Japanís new leaders will stimulate its sluggish economy. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)