Japan leads Asia market losses after business survey

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Hong Kong (AFP)

Tokyo stocks led losses across Asian stock markets on Friday after a closely watched survey showed confidence at Japan's top manufacturers had fallen to a three-year low.

After a highly volatile first three months of the year, regional markets kicked off the next quarter with hefty losses, with a surprise jump in a gauge of Chinese manufacturing unable to arrest the declines in early trade.

The Bank of Japan's quarterly Tankan report of 10,000 firms showed sentiment plunged in January-March to plus six from 12. The survey marks the difference between the percentage of firms that are upbeat and those that see conditions as unfavourable. Forecasts had been for a reading of plus eight.

The figures are the worst since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe put his growth drive fully into action in 2013 and will ramp up pressure on him as the economy struggles to gain traction.

Analysts also said the figures will likely push the central bank to unveil another round of monetary easing measures, on top of the huge bond-buying scheme already under way and after an unprecedented move to negative interest rates.

Tokyo's Nikkei index plunged after the data, ending the morning 2.8 percent lower, with a stronger yen hitting exporters.

There were sharp losses across Asia, with Hong Kong down 0.8 percent, Shanghai losing 0.7 percent and Sydney 1.7 percent lower. Seoul, Singapore and Wellington were also heavily sold off.

After a painful sell-off in January and February, world markets enjoyed a healthy rally in March as central banks from Asia to the Americas loosened the monetary belt to make borrowing easier.

- 'We are cautious' -

Comments from the Federal Reserve that it was unlikely to hike interest rates again before June were also met with cheer.

However, there are fears the gains cannot be sustained.

"We had a great month and the question now is whether that can continue into the second quarter," Evan Lucas, a markets strategist at IG Ltd. in Melbourne, told Bloomberg News.

"We are cautious. Still, the bright spot is that the US is backing further and further away from rate hikes."

News of a shock surge in the official March purchasing managers index of China's factory activity did little to support prices.

The PMI showed growth for the first time since June and followed seven successive months of contraction, fuelling hopes that a long-running growth slowdown in China's economy could be easing. The reading also came after the index hit a four-and-half-year low in February.

China's economy, a vital driver of global expansion, grew 6.9 percent last year, its weakest rate in a quarter of a century and the government has targeted 6.5 percent this year.

Ding Shuang, chief China economist at Standard Chartered in Hong Kong said "the expectation now is that the government won’t let growth slide below the bottom line of 6.5 percent. Monetary policy will stay easy, helping business confidence".

- Key figures around 0230 GMT -

Tokyo - Nikkei 225: DOWN 2.8 percent at 16,287.75 (break)

Shanghai - Composite: DOWN 0.7 percent at 2,982.18

Hong Kong - Hang Seng: DOWN 0.8 percent at 20,610.31

Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.1374 from $1.1377 on Thursday

Dollar/yen: DOWN at 112.14 yen from 112.61 yen

New York - Dow: DOWN 0.2 percent at 17,685.09 (close)

London - FTSE 100: DOWN 0.5 percent at 6,174.90 (close)