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Market recovery continues on global economy hopes

LONDON (AP) — Markets are ending the month in upbeat fashion Thursday amid rising hopes over the global economic recovery despite ongoing concerns over the outcome of Italian elections and the prospect of spending cuts in the U.S.

Many stock indexes are back where they were at the start of the week before the messy Italian election results, which reignited concerns over the country's appetite for further austerity and Europe's debt crisis as a whole.

In fact, the main U.S. equity markets closed at 5-year highs Wednesday and there are indications that the Dow Jones industrial average will make another attempt Thursday towards its all-time record.

Positive economic data, particularly out of the U.S., combined with indications from the Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke that the central bank isn't going to change its super-easy monetary policy any time soon to shore up markets following the Italian election rout.

"Although February isn't going to stand out in traders' minds the same way that January did, it's certainly shaping up to be a robust end to the month," said Fawad Razaqzada, market strategist at GFT Markets. "Bernanke's two-day testimony has been well-timed and the continued commitment to stimulus measures — specifically to support housing, autos and other parts of the economy — has given the bulls a new lease of life."

In Europe, the FTSE 100 index of leading British shares was up 0.2 percent at 6,340 while Germany's DAX rose 0.5 percent to 7,711. The CAC-40 in France was 0.3 percent higher at 3,701.

Italian shares underperformed as investors remained concerned about the ability of political leaders to cobble together a government that will enact further economic reforms and tight budgetary controls. The FTSE MIB index in Milan was down 0.3 percent at 15,784.

Wall Street was poised for a solid opening, with both Dow futures and the broader S&P 500 futures up 0.1 percent.

How the U.S. session actually maps out could well hinge on whether the unexpected 0.1 percent annualized fourth-quarter contraction in the U.S. economy is revised.

Unlike the end of 2012, when investors were concerned about the upcoming fiscal cliff, investors appear sanguine over the risks associated with planned spending cuts that are due to take effect at the start of March as part of a previous budget agreement between the White House and Congress. The planned "sequester" could hit U.S. growth if no deal is reached to avoid it. Previous experience, however, suggests a last-minute deal will be cobbled together.

"Given the late deals we've seen in the past, this could be due to high expectations of a late deal, or alternatively, it may just be that compared to the fiscal cliff at the end of last year, the impact will be minor," said Craig Erlam, market analyst at Alpari.

The dollar has not been affected by the planned cuts and has rallied hard this week amid strong U.S. economic news and rising tensions over Italy. The euro was down 0.2 percent at $1.3122 while the dollar was flat at 92.20 yen.

Earlier in Asia, Tokyo's benchmark led gains after the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe nominated Haruhiko Kuroda, currently president of the Asian Development Bank, to head Japan's central bank. The Nikkei 225 stock average closed at 11,559.36, up 2.7 percent.

Kuroda is seen as a supporter of Abe's efforts to overcome Japan's 20 years of economic stagnation with bolder monetary easing, a weaker yen and bigger government spending.

Elsewhere, South Korea's Kospi ended 1.1 percent higher at 2,026.49, the highest close since Jan. 2, while Hong Kong's Hang Seng added 2 percent to 23,020.27.

Oil markets remain fairly flat with benchmark crude for April delivery down 18 cents to $92.58 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

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Youkyung Lee in Seoul, South Korea contributed to this report.

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