File picture: Alex Grimm

Hong Kong - Asian markets rose on Thursday, taking their lead from a Wall Street rally after minutes from the US Federal Reserve's latest policy meeting showed no support for an early rise in interest rates.

While early gains were pared after China said imports and exports fell sharply in March, Hong Kong and Shanghai were lifted by hopes of new government stimulus and news of a plan to increase access between the two cities' stock exchanges.

Tokyo ended flat, edging up 0.43 points to 14,300.12, and Seoul added 0.48 percent, or 9.66 points, to 2,008.61.

Sydney closed up 17 points or 0.31 percent at 5,480.8 after data showed unemployment had dropped in March below 6.0 percent.

Hong Kong rose 1.51 percent, or 343.79 points, to 23,186.96 while Shanghai jumped 1.38 percent, or 29.06 points, to 2,134.30.

Regional investors were given a positive lead from the United States after the Fed minutes showed bank policymakers were broadly in favour of continuing a steady reduction in its stimulus programme.

The news eased fears of an early rise in rates. Last month stocks sank after Fed chief Janet Yellen suggested rates could go up in early 2015, earlier than most analysts had expected.

“There's been this overriding fear in the market that tightening would be sooner on the horizon than people imagine,” said Brent Schutte, market strategist at BMO Global Asset Management.

“Today's minutes walk back some of those fears.”

The three main indexes on Wall Street climbed for a second successive day on the back of the minutes.

The Dow rose 1.11 percent, the S&P 500 advanced 1.09 percent and the tech-rich Nasdaq rose 1.72 percent.

The minutes also put pressure on the dollar as lower interest rates prompt investors to seek better returns elsewhere.

The greenback stood at 101.72 yen in Tokyo Thursday, compared with 101.97 yen in New York, while the euro was at $1.3857 and 140.98

yen against $1.3852 and 141.26 yen.

China said Thursday that imports slumped 11.3 percent year-on-year and exports fell 6.6 percent.

Expectations had been for imports to rise 2.8 percent and exports to increase 4.2 percent.

The news adds to increasing uncertainty about the Asian economic giant and key driver of global and regional growth following a string of weak indicators, including those on investment and industrial output.

It also led a Customs spokesman to admit: “Currently our foreign trade indeed is having some difficulties.”

He added that trade had been hit by rising competition from neighbouring countries as well as “friction with major trade partners”.

However, Chinese investors took the figures as an opportunity for Beijing to unveil further measures to kickstart economic growth following last week's mini-stimulus.

Hong Kong and Shanghai enjoyed further support from the plan to open up two-way trading between the two bourses.

HSBC deputy chairman and chief executive Peter Wong said the move “reaffirms Hong Kong's role as the fulcrum of China's broader economic integration with the global economy”.

Oil prices slipped. New York's main contract, West Texas Intermediate for May delivery, dropped seven cents to $103.53 a barrel in afternoon trade and Brent North Sea crude for May slid 28 cents to $107.70.

Gold fetched $1,320.75 an ounce at 10:10 SA time, up from $1,305.60 late Wednesday.

In other markets:

- Taipei rose 0.20 percent, or 17.53 points, to 8,948.10.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. was 0.42 percent higher at Tw$119.5, while leading chip design house MediaTek added 1.73

percent to Tw$469.5.

- Wellington rose 48.08 points or 0.95 percent to 5,115.45.

Air New Zealand ended up 1.46 percent at NZ$2.08 and Fletcher Building gained 1.05 percent to close at NZ$9.64.

- Manila rose 0.78 percent, or 51.40 points, to 6,638.89.

SM Prime Holdings gained 1.16 percent to 15.68 pesos while Megaworld jumped 3.20 percent to 4.51 pesos. - Sapa-AFP