Asian stocks plunge after China suspends trade early

Asian stocks plunge after China suspends trade early

China's stocks were suspended from all trade on Thursday after the CSI300 tumbled more than 7 per cent in early trade, triggering the market's circuit breaker for a second time this week.

That drop-kicked stock markets across Asia, which were already wallowing after a weaker open amid concerns over China's swooning currency and economic slowdown as well as falling oil prices.

On the mainland, the Shanghai Composite had tumbled 7.32 per cent by at the time of the halt, while the Shenzhen Composite plummeted 8.34 per cent. The CSI300, the benchmark index against which China's new circuit breakers are set, plunged 7.21 per cent. If that index rises or falls 5 per cent, the market halts all trade for 15 minutes. If it subsequently falls by 7 per cent, trading is suspended for the rest of the day.

In total Thursday, China shares only traded around 15 minutes.

Jackson Wong, associate director at Huarong International Securities said he was not surprised by how quickly the first trade halt came. He attributed it to the mentality of Chinese investors. If the index is down "close to 4 per cent, the selling price will be heavier," he told CNBC's "Asia Squawk Box". "It hit 5 per cent in no time."

Wong added that officials in China do not appear to have a good grasp of the market, even with the introduction of the circuit breakers, which is waning investor confidence.

"They are not very good at this," he said, "the 5 and 7 per cent [benchmarks to trigger circuit breakers] in China is very, very short."

In light of the early shutdown, China's securities regulator also issued new rules to restrict the percentage of shares major shareholders in listed companies can sell every three months, in an attempt to stabilize markets. Shareholders are not allowed to sell more than 1 per cent of a company's share in that period.

The new measures came before the six-month share reduction ban on large shareholders is set to expire Friday.

Before trade, the People's Bank of China (PBOC) set the yuan midpoint at 6.5646 per dollar, 0.5 per cent weaker than Wednesday's fix, the biggest fall between daily fixings since the devaluation began in mid-August. In spot trade, the dollar-yuan pair was at 6.5906. Expectations the yuan will continue to weaken may spur outflows from China investments.

The worry was further compounded this week after Wednesday's Caixin non-manufacturing Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI), a measure of activity for the services sector, showed a slowdown in the pace of growth.

The country is undergoing a structural rebalancing from a manufacturing-oriented to a service-oriented economy, so services sector growth is a key sign of success. The Caixin non-manufacturing PMI for December fell to 50.2, from November's 51.2. A reading over 50 indicates expansion in activities in the sector.

Toby Lawson, head of global markets in Australia at Societe Generale Newedge, told CNBC's "The Rundown" the PBOC needs to more consistent in their policy decisions to retain investor confidence.

"The key for investors is to see some transparency, some consistency from the PBOC in terms of its decision-making, its policies in relation to yuan revaluation, fiscal spending and monetary policy," said Lawson, adding, "If we get consistency, investors feel more confident that Chinese authorities are in control of the declining growth of their economy."

The record widening of the yuan's onshore and offshore exchange rates also sparked concerns over Beijing's undertaking to let the Chinese currency trade more freely.

While Lawson said he expects further devaluation of the onshore yuan, which is more tightly controlled by Beijing, he added that it will be done "in a controlled fashion by the PBOC."

Associate professor Lee Boon Keng, director of Centre for Applied Financial Education (CAFE) said that global currencies appear to be heading south against the US dollar, and that it would be appropriate for the Sing dollar to do the same to ensure the economy remains relatively competitive.

''After all, inflation is nowhere in sight everywhere in the world except perhaps in the United States. And here is where the potential double whammy may be coming from - higher US dollar interest rates. So, with the Chinese trying all means to prevent a hard landing and the Federal Reserve perhaps rather behind the curve in raising interest rates, Asian currencies could be entering a perfect storm in 2016," he added.

Australia extended losses Thursday, with the ASX 200 closing down 2.20 per cent, with the energy sector taking a 5.29 per cent hit by market close. In Japan, the Nikkei 225 slipped more than 400 points to trade 2.23 per cent lower, while Korea's Kospi lost 0.78 per cent.

Energy plays Down Under saw steep losses on the back of lower oil prices, with Woodside shedding 5.11 per cent and Santos losing 7.41 per cent. In Japan, Inpex and Japan Petroleum were down 5.31 and 3.28 per cent respectively.

Tensions in the Middle East and a buildup of gasoline inventory stateside sent oil prices tumbling during US trading hours, down over 5 per cent.

In Asian trade, the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures were down 2.21 per cent, at $33.22 a barrel, lowest since March 2003. The global benchmark, Brent crude, was down 2.34 per cent at $33.43 a barrel, down to a 12-year low.

Resources producers in Australia closed lower, with Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton seeing losses of 4.8 and 4.78 per cent respectively. Gold miners, on the other hand, saw slight uptick in their stocks, with Alacer Gold tacking on 5.10 per cent and Newcrest adding 1 per cent.

Gold, a safe-haven investment during times of economic uncertainty, hit over a seven-week high, with spot prices up at $1,099.

In Japan, major exporters such as Toyota, Nissan and Sony traded down between 2 and 4 per cent. Exporters can be hit when the yen strengthens as it weighs on repatriated earnings. The Japanese yen, considered a safe-haven currency, continued to weaken in Thursday trade, with the dollar fetching around 117.98 yen, compared with as much as 118.75 before the China trade halt.

Reports in Japan said Sony and Fujifilm were considering a joint bid to acquire Toshiba's medical equipment subsidiary, Toshiba Medical Systems, as the troubled electronics company continues with its restructuring. Among other reported bidders are Hitachi, Canon, General Electric's healthcare business, and the Samsung group.

Toshiba shares were down 3 per cent.

In Korea, the tech sector saw some early losses with shares of Samsung Electronics, Samsung SDI and SK Hynix in the red.

South Korean defence stocks, which saw sharp upticks in the previous session following reports of North Korea's purported nuclear test traded lower, falling between 3.71 and 9.77 per cent.

North Korea's claim on Wednesday that it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb sparked fresh geopolitical concerns in the Korean peninsula and led to global condemnation of the isolated Communist country. The incident did not appear to have an immediate impact on stock prices in the region.

On the data front, Australia released its November trade data where seasonally adjusted deficit was at A$2.91 billion, beating expectations in the market. The resource-oriented economy had a tough last year due to tumbling iron ore and coal prices. But some of that pain was offset by a lower Australian dollar, which helped to boost export revenues.

Major indexes in the US closed more than 1 per cent down, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average shedding 252.15 points, or 1.47 per cent, at 16,906.51. The S&P 500 closed down 26.45 points, or 1.31 per cent, at 1,990.26, with energy leading all 10 sectors lower. The Nasdaq Composite closed down 55.67 points, or 1.14 per cent, at 4,835.76.

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