Asian stocks tentative amid Fed stimulus cut fears

Asian stock markets mostly posted tentative gains Friday as investors prepared for the U.S. Federal Reserve's decision next week on whether to reduce its monetary stimulus. Oil prices edged up, staying above $97 per barrel.

Asia's heavyweight market benchmark, Tokyo's Nikkei 225, rose 0.4 percent to 15,404.59 and Hong Kong, Taiwan and Sydney also rose. Shanghai was unchanged.

Markets declined in smaller economies including Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand that might be more exposed if a reduction in the Fed's stimulus hurts U.S. demand for imports or sparks short-term capital flight from Asian economies.

"The unwinding of unconventional monetary policy is a good thing long term. However it will cause short-term vibrations," said Evan Lucas, a strategist for Australia's IG Markets, in a report.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng rose 0.2 percent to 23,271.96. Taiwan's Taiex added 0.2 percent to 8,378.68 and Sydney's S&P ASX 200 gained 0.5 percent to 5,089.70. China's benchmark Shanghai Composite Index was unchanged at 2,203.15.

Strong U.S. retail sales and signs of an imminent budget agreement in Congress have reinforced expectations that the Federal Open Market Committee meeting on Dec. 17-18 might decide to start reducing its $85 billion worth of monthly financial asset purchases.

That prompted selling in Asian economies that might see U.S. demand for imports weaken in the event stimulus is wound down.

Seoul's Kospi shed 0.5 percent to 1,958.82. Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Manila also fell by margins of 0.2 to 0.4 percent.

The U.S. stimulus has buoyed stocks over the past few years, and its potential reduction has jolted markets in recent months. However, any tapering is expected to be accompanied by a renewed commitment by the Fed to keep interest rates low. That, analysts say, helps explain why stock markets are still trading at relative highs and why bond markets aren't too volatile.

On Thursday, markets in Britain, Germany and France all ended lower.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average ended down 0.6 percent and the S&P 500 shed 0.3 percent.

Weekly jobless claims showing a 68,000 spike last week to 368,000 were largely ignored given difficulties making adjustments as a result of the late timing of the Thanksgiving holiday. However, figures showing retail sales in the U.S. rose by a better than expected 0.7 percent in November had a far bigger impact, especially as back data were revised upward, too.

The focus will likely remain on the Fed until its decision next Wednesday.

The future of the Fed's stimulus has been the main driver across all markets since May, when chairman Ben Bernanke first mooted the possibility.

Benchmark crude oil for January delivery rose 2 cents to $97.52 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 6 cents on Thursday to settle at $97.50.

In currency markets, the dollar rose to 103.74 yen from 103.56 yen. The euro gained to $1.3753 from $1.3745.