* MSCI Asia ex-Japan up 0.5 pct, Nikkei soars to 4-1/2-year
* China exports beat forecasts
* Dollar touches 3-1/2-year peak against yen
* Gold weighed down as investors seek higher returns
* European shares likely edge higher
By Chikako Mogi
TOKYO, March 8 (Reuters) - The dollar touched a fresh
3-1/2-year peak against the yen and Asian shares rose on Friday,
as gains in U.S. stocks on solid data and Chinese exports
beating forecast underpinned investor risk sentiment while
denting demand for safe-haven gold.
European markets are seen edging higher, with financial
spreadbetters predicting London's FTSE 100, Paris's
CAC-40 and Frankfurt's DAX would open up about
0.2 percent. A 0.1 percent rise in U.S. stock futures
pointed to a steady Wall Street start.
Preceding the release of U.S. nonfarm payrolls, China said
February exports grew 21.8 percent from a year earlier, more
than double the estimated rise, while imports fell 15.2 percent,
deeper than an 8.8 percent drop forecast.
"The growth in exports probably reflected an improving
global economic environment, including the United States, while
the drop in imports is likely distorted by the effect from the
Lunar Year holidays during the month," said Hirokazu Yuihama, a
senior strategist at Daiwa Securities in Tokyo.
"The fall in imports does not suggest weakness in domestic
demand and the trade data overall doesn't change the outlook for
a moderate recovery in China," he said.
The MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside
Japan rose 0.5 percent, on track for a weekly
gain of 0.8 percent.
Australian shares added 0.3 percent while the
Australian dollar briefly rose after the Chinese data
to around $1.0265 before easing to trade down 0.2 percent at
1.0244. New Zealand shares closed at a record high.
Hong Kong shares surged 1.8 percent while Shanghai
shares rose 0.3 percent.
"We see economic recovery in China already, so it will be
important to see how that is translated into the earnings
recovery for Chinese companies," said Benjamin Chang, chief
executive officer of LBN Advisors, a firm that manages more than
$400 million in two China funds.
Investors now awaited key U.S. jobs data due at 1330 GMT for
further signs of strength in the world's largest economy.
Analysts expect a rise of 160,000 jobs in February.
Friday's payrolls report is key to gauging the U.S. Federal
Reserve's policy course as the Fed will keep its near-zero rate
stance until the unemployment rate falls to 6.5 percent, as long
as inflation does not threaten to top 2.5 percent.
Thursday's data showing an unexpected drop in new initial
jobless claims benefits last week indicated a steady economic
improvement and drove the Dow Jones industrial average to
an intraday record for a third consecutive session. The dollar
extended its climb against the yen to a peak of 95.45.
"If the jobs data turns out to be good I think we will start
to see a 95 yen to 98 yen range," said Hiroshi Maeba, head of FX
trading Japan for UBS in Tokyo.
Japan's Nikkei stock average closed up 2.6 percent
at its highest since September 2008.
As the dollar is increasingly bought on a firming U.S.
economy, the yen has come under renewed selling pressure due to
expectations the Bank of Japan will take bold reflationary
measures when a new leadership takes over later this month.
The yen extended its decline against the euro to a low of
124.21 yen before inching back up to 124.85.
PATCHY GLOBAL ECONOMY
European Central Bank President Mario Draghi on Thursday
suggested the bank was not in a hurry to act while noting that
any threat of contagion to other euro zone members from Italy's
inconclusive election results was muted.
The euro was down 0.1 percent at $1.3091, keeping
most of its gains after rallying more than 1 percent on Draghi's
comments on Thursday.
As U.S. equities firmed, the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury
yield remained elevated at 1.997 percent in Asia.
Spot gold also eased 0.1 percent to $1,576.55 an
ounce as investors sought higher returns and abandoned no
interest-bearing bullion. For the past month since the dollar
bounced off its lows against a basket of key currencies,
gold has been capped below a key technical resistance of its
14-day moving average, which stood at $1,583.42 on Friday.
"Improving U.S. fundamentals and a 'positive' rise in the
dollar are bostering stocks and denting gold's appeal because
its investment return lags those assets which are leveraged, or
are riskier," said Koichiro Kamei, managing director at
financial research firm Market Strategy Institute.
Analysts expect gold to hold ranges above an immediate
support of $1,545-50, with a clear break below $1,521 through
$1,500 signalling the next phase of weakness.
Southeast Asian bourses remained among the region's top
performers, with Indonesia advancing further to reach a
record high for a third straight session.
Foreigners have raised their investment in Indonesia's
government bond market to record levels this year, while also
pitching into the stock market.
U.S. crude fell 0.3 percent to $91.33 a barrel and
Brent also fell 0.3 percent to $110.87.