By Carla Mozee

Mexico's equities and currency rose Friday after the central bank held its key interest rate steady and after the release of more figures that illustrated improvement in economic conditions in the U.S., Mexico's biggest trading partner.

Mexico's IPC equity index advanced 1.2% to 28,290, moving toward its fourth session of gains and a weekly rise of more than 1%.

Market heavyweight America Movil (AMX) shares tacked on 0.7% and steel producer Industrias CH climbed 1.3% in the wake of a National Association of Realtors report that U.S. sales of existing homes in July rose 7.2% to 5.24 million units, the highest level since August 2007.

Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected sales to rise to an annual rate of 5 million.

Signs that the housing market in the U.S. is stabilizing lifts the prospect for economic recovery, which helps Mexico because the U.S. buys 80% of Mexico's exports.

The housing data helped pull U.S. equities higher. The S&P 500 Index (SPX) climbed 1.6% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI) jumped 136 points, or 1.5%, to 9,486.

The nearly year-long recession in Mexico had prompted Bank of Mexico officials to cut the key interest rate by 375 basis points so far this year, including a cut of 25 basis points in July. But on Friday, policymakers held the rate unchanged at 4.5%, a decision that had been widely expected.

The bank, in an accompanying statement, said it would extend the pause in its rate-cutting campaign, a more dovish stance than had been anticipated, said RBC Capital Markets in note.

"Clearly, if there is any U.S. economic setback in 2010 and considering Banxico's more dovish tone, risks are tilted to only very modest tightening in 2010 (or none at all)," wrote currency strategists at RBC.

Mexico's currency rose 0.4% on Friday to 12.836 pesos per U.S. dollar from Thursday's level at 12.884 pesos.

On the stock exchange, shares of interest-rate sensitive banks were higher. Banorte climbed 3.2%, Grupo Financiero Inbursa rose 1% and microlender Banco Compartamos picked up 0.2%.

Mexico's statistics agency on Thursday said gross domestic product sank 10.3% in the second quarter, with the figures aggravated by a slowdown in activity related to the H1N1 flu outbreak and the Easter holiday. The contraction, though sharp, was better than the 10.6% contraction forecast by economists polled by Dow Jones Newswires.

Alfredo Coutino, director of Latin American research at Moody's, in a note Friday wrote that the probability of further rate cuts this year is low.

"Inflation will not be a concern in an economy in deep recession. The policy stimulus will help the economy to be out of recession by the end of the year," he said.

The annual inflation rate has been gradually decreasing. In June, it reached 5.4%, down from 5.2% in May. The central bank's target rate is 3%. The Bank of Mexico also said Friday that it expects to see economic recovery starting in the second half of this year.

RBC, meanwhile, expects the central bank to start raising rates in the first quarter of 2010 and to push it up to 6% by the end of that year. Market consensus is for rates to end at 5.5%, the firm said.

In ETF action, the iShares MSCI Mexico Index Fund (EWW) rose 1.5%.

Bovespa advances

In addition to positive developments from the U.S. housing market, investors in Latin American markets received an influential report that signaled expansion in private sector activity across the euro-zone.

Also, U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said in a speech Friday that the global economy is starting to emerge from the crippling financial crisis.

Brazil's Bovespa rose 1.3% to 57,565, and was on its way to finishing higher for the fourth consecutive session. It's set to post a weekly gain of about 2%.

Homebuilders were the top gainers of the session, led by a 9.9% jump in shares of Rossi Residencial and a 7.7% rise in shares of Gafisa (GFA).

Shares of oil firm Petrobras (PBR) climbed 1.8% as crude-oil futures hit their highest level this year, above $74 a barrel.

Also, Petrobras said late Thursday that it told Brazilian regulators that it has discovered traces of oil in a well in the Espirito Santo Basin.

Shares of Vale (RIO) rose 1.5% after Itaú-Unibanco analyst Marcos Assumpção advised clients to buy the iron ore giant's shares "before it is too late."

Itaú raised its 2010 estimate for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization to $15 billion from $12.2 billion to incorporate higher prices for iron ore, higher volumes and stronger prices for base metals.

"In our view, better earnings outlook together with an underweight position in the stock is likely to drive a positive share performance in the short term," wrote Assumpção.

He added that Vale's traded shares have climbed nearly 40% this year, compared with more than 50% rise in the Bovespa index and an average jump of 70% in shares of Brazilian steel companies.

"In our view, this underperformance is undeserved, since both sectors benefit similarly from a global economic recovery," he said.

Argentina's Merval rose 1.9% to 1,804. A close above the 1,800 points level would be the first in more than a year. The Merval is on pace to close up 2% for the week.

Chile's IPSA down 5 points to 3,272 and is cruising toward a weekly decline of less than 1%.