Chinese shares fell 5% to a three-month low after confusion about the direction of the Chinese currency caused wild gyrations on Asian stock markets.
A late rush of selling in Shanghai sent the CSI 300 index down 169 points to 3,192 points – its lowest since the aftermath of the summer crisis.
China guided the yuan slightly stronger for a second straight session on Monday in a move that appeared designed to calm concerns about a competitive devaluation, but only added to market confusion as to Beijing’s ultimate policy intent.
Monday’s fall in share prices followed a 10% plunge last week which triggered a global sell-off of riskier assets.
“Authorities are reluctant to let market forces rule, which along with their indecisiveness and lack of transparency is exacerbating uncertainty,” said Tapas Strickland, an economist at National Australia Bank.
“Understandably, amidst this global markets are selling Chinese policymakers’ ability to control their economy.”
In Australia, the ASX/S&P 200 index slumped more than 2% to 4,880 points, its lowest point for two years before recovering to close down 1.2% for the day in its seventh successive day of losses. The resource and energy sectors were the hardest hit after the uncertainty about China and another tumble in commodity prices damaged confidence.
Oil continued its slide with a barrel of benchmark Brent crude falling 89c, or 2.6%, to $32.66 a barrel. US crude was down about 2.3% to $32.39. Prices of copper and nickel were also down.
The Australian dollar, often seen as a trading proxy for the Chinese economy, fell to a four-month low of US69.54c, down from 70.51c on Friday.
The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong was down more than 2% while the Kospi index in South Korea fell more than 1%. The Japanese stock markets were closed for a public holiday but Nikkei futures trading was weak.
In Europe, the main markets were also set to open down, according to trading firm IG.
The People’s Bank of China set the mid-point for the yuan at 6.5626 a dollar, confounding analysts who had looked for something around 6.5860.
The move was an apparent reversal of the recent weakening trend which included the biggest one-day drop in five months.
China’s foreign exchange regulator on Saturday said it would ramp up risk control efforts and push ahead with regulatory reforms, but was frustratingly short on specifics.
The perceived missteps by the authorities have stoked concerns Beijing might lose its grip on economic policy, too, even as China looks set to post its slowest growth in 25 years. Both the Dow and S&P 500 SPX had their worst five-day starts in history last week.
“Different signals about foreign exchange policy have wrong-footed market participants and we are wary in believing that an immediate calmness will soon emerge,” wrote Paul Mackel, head of emerging markets FX research at HSBC in a note.
“In this context, we expect yuan volatility to remain high while depreciation pressures are likely to remain strong.“
Chinese markets have had a tortuous start to the year, buffeted by the falling yuan, two days of stock exchange suspensions, weak factory and service sector activity surveys and worries about looming share sales by major stakeholders once a ban on such sales expires.
All of which heightened tensions ahead of China trade data on Wednesday where further declines are expected in exports and imports, underlining the parlous state of world trade flows.
Figures out over the weekend showed Chinese consumer inflation stuck at a subdued 1.6% in December, while producer prices were down a steep 5.9% on the year – a deflationary pulse that is being felt across the globe.