Asian stocks sink but Shanghai up after sharp losses

Hong Kong - Most Asian markets retreated Wednesday but Shanghai ticked higher after losing more than seven percent in the first two days of a volatile week for global investors.

The gains in China come as reports say authorities have spent huge sums of cash on shoring up equities to prevent a repeat of the summer's rout that saw trillions of dollars wiped off valuations.

The country's central bank also set its daily reference rate against the dollar at its lowest level in almost five years, according to Bloomberg News.

But analysts warned the moves would cause more problems down the line as China's economy, the world's second biggest and a key driver of global growth, heads for its worst annual performance in a quarter of a century.

Stocks in Asia, which swung wildly Monday and Tuesday, extended a miserable start to 2016 fanned by another round of weak Chinese economic indicators, sinking oil prices and rising tensions in the Middle East.

But Shanghai was up 0.7 percent by the break.

It fell 0.3 percent Tuesday despite the People's Bank of China pumping 130 billion yuan (S$28.44 billion) into the money market.

"There's word spreading in the market that state funds are buying, but the idea is to hold up the market, not to bolster it by a large margin," said Dai Ming, a fund manager at Hengsheng Asset Management Co. in Shanghai.

"The market has basically stabilised after the tumble and investors are waiting for further policies that will boost sentiment." Regulators had closed trading early Monday because the seven percent fall triggered a new circuit breaker put in place during the summer to prevent sharp losses or gains.

The losses had come as investors were spooked by the Friday expiration of a ban on selling stocks for certain investors, also announced in the summer. Bloomberg News reported Tuesday that regulators had asked the nation's exchanges to tell companies that the ban will remain in force. The regulator did not confirm the report.

However, Jorge Mariscal, the emerging-markets chief investment officer at UBS Wealth Management, said in New York that "these sorts of measures are going to backfire".

While Shanghai enjoyed some buying, other regional markets retreated.

Tokyo fell one percent in the afternoon as exporters were hurt by a strong yen, Hong Kong was 0.9 percent lower at the break, Sydney fell 1.2 percent and Seoul shed 0.5 percent.

There was little reaction to news that North Korea said it had carried out a nuclear test - its fourth since 2006 - compounding worries about China's economy and tensions in the Middle East.

"We have more serious issues like the Chinese economy and tension in the Middle East," said Yoshinori Shigemi, a global market strategist for JPMorgan Asset Management in Tokyo.

"I think investors will start refocusing on those issues." Regional investors were not comforted by a mild rebound in US and European markets and Mark Lister, head of private wealth research at Craigs Investment Partners in Wellington, warned of trouble down the line.

"There's still quite a long list of things to worry about and this volatility is going to be with us for some time.

"We're still cautious on China and think it gets worse before it gets better. It doesn't help sentiment when you're seeing such big moves." Dealers will be keeping a close watch on the release Friday of US jobs data, hoping for an idea about the Federal Reserve's timetable for another interest rate boost following last month's hike, which was the first in almost a decade.

Currency investors moved into safer investments, with the dollar and yen climbing.

The greenback was sitting at one-month highs against the euro, with the single currency buying US$1.0749 (S$1.54), while the British pound was near one-year lows at US$1.4666.

But the dollar slipped to 118.71 yen, with the Japanese unit considered a go-to currency in times of turmoil and uncertainty.