* HSI +0.9 pct, H-shares +1.6 pct, CSI300 +0.2 pct
* Robust China loan data spurs guarded cyclical gains
* Chinese insurers jump after January premium growth
* Daqin Railway sheds early gains despite policy news
By Clement Tan
HONG KONG, Feb 17 Hong Kong shares hit their highest in three weeks early on Monday, led by insurers which posted strong January premium growth and helped by robust China bank lending data.
But mainland markets were less sanguine, with mid-sized banks among the biggest drags on the index. Still, gains on the day helped push the Shanghai Composite Index into positive territory in 2014 for the first time.
At midday, the CSI300 of the largest Shanghai and Shenzhen A-share listings was up 0.2 percent, while the Shanghai Composite Index rose 0.5 percent and was now up 0.5 percent on the year. The CSI300 was still down more than 1 percent in 2014.
The Hang Seng Index rose 0.9 percent to 22,497.8 points, while the China Enterprises Index of the leading offshore Chinese listings in Hong Kong climbed 1.6 percent. Both were at their highest since Jan. 24.
The batch of January data that's come out "is soothing some fears on growth in the mainland, although I don't think it has fundamentally changed anything," said Jackson Wong, Tanrich Securities' vice-president for equity sales.
Despite a credit clampdown by the Chinese central bank, bank lending figures for January released on Saturday handily beat expectations, adding to solid trade and benign inflation data that came out earlier.
Investors will likely look towards the earnings season for company-specific guidance on growth starting later this month, given the batch of official data came so soon after four separate surveys about China's manufacturing and services sectors had showed growth sliding to multi-month or multi-year lows in January.
HIGHER FREIGHT RATES?
"Still, this should persuade some investors to relook some of the more unloved cyclical sectors in the short term, starting with the financials ahead of earnings and China's annual parliamentary meetings in early March," Wong added.
Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and China Construction Bank each rose more than 1 percent in Hong Kong. China Minsheng Bank rose 0.9 percent in Hong Kong, but sank 2.3 percent in Shanghai.
The Chinese rail sector in Hong Kong was buoyed by state media reports that the National Development and Reform Commission has raised railway freight charges by 12.5 percent this year.
China Railway Group rose 1.4 percent in Hong Kong but was flat in Shanghai. Daqin Railway dived 3.6 percent in Shanghai after earlier rising as much as 3.7 percent. If losses hold, this intra-day reversal is a bearish sign pointing to further short-term losses.
Strength in premium liquor makers held up mainland indexes. Kweichow Moutai extended its post-Lunar New Year rally on positive sales during the week-long holiday, surging 4.7 percent in Shanghai.
China Life Insurance's H-share listing headed for its biggest single day gain since Nov. 18, soaring 6.5 percent after posting January premium income of 80.9 billion yuan ($13.3 billion). Its A-share listing climbed more than 2 percent in Shanghai.
Credit Suisse analysts upgraded China Life from "neutral" to "outperform", citing new product launches, strong bancassurance sales and a renewed focus on driving growth as the main factors.