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Australian stocks lead Asian markets higher

HONG KONG - Australia's stock market and currency jumped Thursday after encouraging economic data while gains on other major world benchmarks were more modest as investors waited for key policy meetings in Europe and a major U.S. job report.

Australia's S&P/ASX 200 rose 1.2 percent to 5,129.20 and the Australian dollar rose to its highest in more than three weeks after the government reported a surprise trade surplus in December. Economists had been expecting a deficit.

Economists at Societe Generale wrote in a report that the trade figures as well as "solid" growth in December retail sales indicate strong economic growth in the final quarter of 2013 for Australia, which has been contending with a cooling mining boom.

In early European trading, Germany's DAX climbed 0.6 percent to 9,167.85 while France's CAC 40 advanced 0.4 percent to 4,133.09. The FTSE 100 index of leading British companies was up 0.3 percent to 6,477.90

U.S. stocks were poised to edge higher. Dow futures rose 0.1 percent to 15,389.00 while S&P 500 futures added 0.2 percent to 1,747.40.

Benchmarks in Asia finished higher, although Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 index closed 0.2 percent lower at 14,155.12 after spending most of the day in positive territory.

South Korea's Kospi climbed 0.9 percent to 1,907.89 and Hong Kong's Hang Seng advanced 0.7 percent to 21,423.13.

Markets in China remained closed until Friday because of Lunar New Year holidays.

Asian stocks were stabilizing after sharp declines earlier in the week.

Investors are holding tight ahead of interest rate policy meetings by the European Central Bank and Bank of England later Thursday and a U.S. report on non-farm payrolls for January on Friday.

"Range trading is likely to dominate" before those events, said Mitul Kotecha, Asian head of global markets research for Credit Agricole CIB.

While no change in policy is expected from the bank meetings, the results of the U.S. job report will provide an important clue to the state of the world's largest economy. That in turn will guide policymakers at the U.S. Federal Reserve, who have been scaling back stimulus that has helped fuel gains in world markets.

In currencies, the dollar dipped to 101.35 Japanese yen from 101.54 in late trading Wednesday. The euro slipped to $1.3525 from $1.3540.

Benchmark U.S. oil for March delivery was up 17 cents to $97.55 in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 19 cents to close at $97.38 Wednesday.

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