PAMELA SAMPSON

BANGKOK (AP) â¿¿ Asian stock markets fell Thursday as Japanese business confidence dropped and higher borrowing costs for Italy sparked worries over the ability of European governments to get a grip on their ever-burgeoning debts.

Benchmark oil rose to near $96 per barrel after a big slide the day before while the dollar fell against the euro and the yen.

Japan's Nikkei 225 index shed 1.1 percent to 8,423.87. South Korea's Kospi lost 1.8 percent to 1,823.53 and Hong Kong's Hang Seng tumbled 1.9 percent to 18,014.70. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 dropped 1.1 percent to 4,143.20. Benchmarks in Singapore, Taiwan, and mainland China were also lower.

In Japan, confidence at major manufacturers fell over the last quarter. The Bank of Japan's "tankan" survey of business sentiment fell to minus 4.

The figure represents the percentage of companies saying business conditions are good minus those saying conditions are unfavorable, with 100 representing the best mood and minus 100 the worst.

Japan's strong yen has hit multiple historic highs this year against the dollar, making business conditions difficult for Japan's export-reliant economy.

Some of the gloom was offset, however, by preliminary manufacturing figures showing that China's manufacturing contracted at a slower rate in December. HSBC's purchasing manager's index for December stood at 49.0, up from 47.7 in November. Any number below 50 indicates a contraction in manufacturing activity.

But the figure didn't raise hopes that China might ease its monetary policy anytime soon.

"I don't think there will be an interest rate cut in the short-term," said Dickie Wong, executive director of research at Kingston Securities Ltd. in Hong Kong. "Sentiment is really bad in China."

On Wall Street, stocks plummeted Wednesday amid a growing sense that Europe's leaders have failed to contain that region's debt crisis.

Since European leaders reached an agreement to rein in future government budget deficits last week, investors and credit rating agencies have criticized the deal for failing to address current problems.

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