File picture: Alex Grimm

A positive start to US corporate earnings season and a sharp improvement in China's monthly trade helped boost world stock markets Thursday.

Benchmarks rose after a handful of better-than-expected results from US companies sparked gains on Wall Street. Consumer products maker Helen of Troy, whose brands include Dr. Scholl's and Vidal Sassoon, reported a 15 percent profit increase. Electronic payments processor Global Payments said its fiscal second-quarter earnings rose nearly 15 percent, beating Wall Street expectations.

A rebound in China's exports also lifted investment sentiment. Export growth more than quadrupled from November's level to 14.1

percent in December. Imports rose 6 percent after failing to grow at all in November.

Britain's FTSE 100 rose 0.1 percent to 6,104.99. Germany's DAX rose marginally to 7,721.87. France's CAC-40 fell 0.4 percent to 3,704.16.

US stocks were poised for gains. Dow Jones industrial futures rose 0.1 percent to 13,339 while S&P 500 futures added 0.1 percent to 1,457.50.

Earlier in Asia, Japan's Nikkei 225 index rose 0.7 percent to close at 10,652.64. South Korea's Kospi added 0.8 percent to 2,006.80. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 advanced 0.3 percent to 4,723. Benchmarks in Singapore, Taiwan and New Zealand also rose.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng gained 0.6 percent to 23,354.31 following a decision by the China Securities Regulatory Commission to allow some initial public offerings of mainland companies to be carried out in Hong Kong.

The move is an effort to clear a backlog of IPOs that the understaffed CSRC cannot handle, said Francis Lun, managing director of Lyncean Holdings in Hong Kong.

“It's a practical way to handle an emergency problem,” Lun said. It will boost the Hong Kong exchange's market capitalisation by one-third, he said.

A weakening yen helped propel Japan's export-reliant carmakers higher. Mazda Motor Corp. soared 10.2 percent. Honda Motor Co. gained 2.5 percent. Isuzu Motors Ltd. rose 3.8 percent. Japanese steelmakers also posted solid gains. JFE Holdings jumped 5 percent and Kobe Steel added 5.8 percent.

Hong Kong-listed Aluminum Corp. of China surged 6.5 percent a day after US aluminum giant Alcoa forecast demand would grow 7 percent in 2013, up from a 6 percent gain in 2012.

Later Thursday, the European Central Bank will meet to set monetary policy for the 17 countries that use the euro. It is expected to keep its benchmark interest rate unchanged at the record low of 0.75 percent even though the eurozone economy as a whole is back in recession. Investors are also awaiting the release in the US of weekly jobless claims.

Benchmark crude oil contract for February delivery was up 59 cents to $93.68 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell 5 cents to close at $93.10 per barrel on the Nymex on Wednesday.

In currencies, the euro rose to $1.3058 from $1.3053 while the dollar rose to 88.11 yen from 87.75 yen.

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