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By Sarah Turner, MarketWatch
SYDNEY (MarketWatch) -- Asia stocks struggled for direction on the last trading day of November, a month that has seen some stark divergence in the performance of the region's national markets.
Friday trading saw Japan's Nikkei Stock Average flat, while South Korea's Kospi lost 0.3%, but Australia's S&P/ASX 200 index advanced 0.6%.
Gains for U.S. equity markets on Thursday were on the small side, limited by uncertainty that U.S. politicians will succeed in hammering out a deal to prevent more than $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts from taking place automatically in January.
Dampening sentiment, Republican U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday morning there has been "no substantive progress" in negotiations on the so-called fiscal cliff, briefly rattling the U.S. market.
IG Index strategist Stan Shamu said the back-and-forth on the fiscal cliff would likely fuel market volatility through the end of December.
"Many [are] now convinced that negotiations will mirror that of last August's debt-ceiling disaster and go right down to the wire. As a result, a choppy last month of the year is probably the most likely scenario, disappointing those hoping for a Santa Claus rally," Shamu said.
The term "Santa Claus rally" refers to a year-end gain for shares that tends to start in December.
Still, U.S. economic data proved resilient on Thursday, and Japanese data out Friday resulted in a set of consumer inflation, unemployment and household spending data that, while remaining relatively weak, either met or exceeded economist expectations.
Japanese shares initially climbed at the Friday open but soon fell back. The Nikkei has risen 5.3% so far in November, helped by speculation that next month's leadership election will see the introduction of some radical policies to help the economy.
Exporters have performed particularly well over the past month after the prospect of more monetary-policy easing sent the yen down almost 3% in November.
But on Friday, the dollar stood at ¥82.11, little changed from late Thursday, and currency-sensitive firms underperformed, as Honda Motor Co. (HMC) traded down 1%, and Pioneer Corp. , (6773.TO) fell 2.5%.
On the plus side, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. (7011.TO) climbed 2.7%, and Hitachi Ltd. (HIT) advanced 2.8%, after the firms said they will merge their thermal-power businesses and related units in a join t venture by 2014.
Losses for exporters also weighed on the South Korean market on Friday, where Hyundai Motor Co. (HYMTF) dropped 0.4%, and SK Hynix Inc. (HXSCL) retreated 1.8%.
In contrast to Japan, other Asia-Pacific countries have seen a less impressive stock-market performance over the past month. The Kospi is up 1.1% so far in November, while the S&P/ASX 200 has declined 0.4% over the month so far.
In Australia on Friday, however, the benchmark garnered support from a strong performance in the mining sector, after metals advanced in New York trade on Thursday.
Of the majors, Rio Tinto Ltd. (RIO) climbed 3.3%, while Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. (FSUMY) rose 1.3%.
Rare-earths group Lynas Corp. advanced 2.2% after announcing that it has started operating its processing plant in Malaysia.
Among Japanese resource shares, oil major JX Holdings Inc. (JXHGF) surged 3.9% after its refining unit said late Thursday that it plans to raise its December crude throughput by 14% compared to a year earlier. .
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