Markets shored up by US economic hopes

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By PAN PYLAS, Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Optimism over the U.S. economy after the release of solid retail sales figures shored up global markets on Tuesday ahead of the latest policy statement from the U.S. Federal Reserve.

Sentiment in Europe was also boosted after Greece was cleared to get its next round of bailout cash, thereby avoiding imminent bankruptcy.

Markets have well this year on signs that Europe's debt crisis is abating and the U.S. economy is recovering faster than expected. A monthly 1.1 percent increase in U.S. retail sales in February added to the recent evidence over the world's largest economy, as did an upward revision to January's data.

"There is much to like in today's report if only because the revisions to January's data implies Q1 GDP could be a bit stronger than originally estimated," said Dan Greenhaus, chief global strategist at BTIG LLC.

In Europe, the FTSE 100 index of leading British shares was up 0.6 percent at 5,928 while Germany's DAX rose 0.9 percent to 6,962. The CAC-40 in France was 1 percent higher too at 3,524.

In the U.S., the Dow Jones industrial average was up 0.3 percent at 12,993 while the broader Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 0.4 percent to 1,377.

Most interest later will center on the Fed. Though no policy changes are anticipated, investors will be closely monitoring the accompanying statement to see if U.S. rate-setters are more confident about the state of the recovery following a run of upbeat economic data, particularly on the jobs front.

Predictions that the Fed may sound a more hawkish tone has helped boost the dollar, with the euro trading 0.7 percent lower at $1.3067.

Europe's debt crisis will never be too far from investors' minds, though, despite recent signs of easing.

The news overnight that Spain's euro partners have allowed the country to run a deficit of 5.3 percent of gross domestic product this year, above the original 4.4 percent target, has generated some concerns that the hoped-for goal of more budgetary discipline within the eurozone may not be as stringent as hoped.

"The problem with Spain missing its targets on debt reduction is the fear of contagion," said Simon Furlong, a trader at Spreadex. "Europe simply cannot afford to bail out Spain, and with investors as skittish as they are over Europe, demand could easily flow away from Spanish debt if it is perceived that they cannot get to grips with their debt."

Earlier in Asia, South Korea's Kospi rose 1.1 percent to 2,025.04 but Hong Kong's Hang Seng added 1 percent to 21,339.70.

The Nikkei 225 index in Japan closed less than 0.1 percent higher at 9,899.08 with trading little-affected by the Bank of Japan's decision to keep its benchmark interest rate unchanged at zero to 0.1 percent. Japan's central bank also said it is allowing companies in areas struck by a disastrous earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 an extra year to pay back debts and adding more money to lending to encourage growth.

Oil prices gave up some earlier gains, with benchmark oil for April delivery down 32 cents to $106.02 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

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Pamela Sampson in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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