By PAMELA SAMPSONBANGKOK (AP) â¿¿ Asian stock markets rose Friday after signs that the U.S. economic recovery is gaining traction and and better-than-expected growth in China emboldened investors to plunge back into equities. Strong reports on housing starts and jobs released late Thursday in the U.S. sent Wall Street higher, despite disappointing earnings from Bank of America and Citigroup. China's economy grew 7.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, up from the previous quarter's 7.4 percent. Stronger quarterly growth was widely expected after earlier data showed retail sales, factory output and other indicators rising. "Such an outcome should put to rest any remaining doubt about China escaping a hard landing and sailing smoothly through the troubled global waters," Dariusz Kowalczyk of Credit Agricole CIB in Hong Kong said in an email. Japan's Nikkei 225 soared 2.1 percent, recouping all of Thursday's losses and more as the yen slipped against the dollar. Hong Kong's Hang Seng rose 0.7 percent to 23,501.36. South Korea's Kospi added 0.5 percent to 1,983.97. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 rose 0.3 percent to 4,769.10. Investors became more optimistic after the U.S. Commerce Department issued a strong report on housing starts for December. Builders broke ground on houses and apartments at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 954,000 â¿¿ more than 12 percent higher than November. Unemployment figures were a further sign of economic recovery. The U.S. government said the number of Americans seeking unemployment aid plummeted to a five-year low last week. "US economic data continued to show steady and gradual growth, and that gave a fresh boost to market sentiment," said Gary Yau of Credit Agricole in a market commentary. Wall Street stocks rose Thursday, but the rally was held back by earnings reports from two of the country's biggest banks. Both Citigroup and Bank of America fell after disappointing the market with their fourth-quarter earnings reports.