by

Moxy Ying and Livia Yap

After a slump in US stocks, Asia’s main equity gauge has finally succumbed, entering a bear market.  The region’s equities have already lost more than $US4.9 trillion ($6.92 trillion) in value this year, and Thursday isn’t looking pretty.

The MSCI Asia Pacific Index fell as much as 2.2 per cent on Thursday, taking its slide from a January peak to 21 per cent.

Japan’s Topix index plunged 2.3 per cent, heading for its lowest close since September 2017, while the Nikkei 225 Stock Average lost 2.8 per cent. The Kospi 100 Index’s 2.3 per cent slide took the South Korean gauge into bear-market territory after data showed the economy grew less than projected in the third quarter. Chinese markets also tanked.

Following big plunges at the open, Asia indices saw some respite as US stock futures hinted that the rout could take a small breather.

December contracts on the S&P 500 Index rose 0.3 per cent as of 12:27 p.m. in Tokyo. Futures on the Nasdaq 100 and Dow Jones Industrial Average climbed 0.5 per cent and 0.2 per cent respectively.

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Still, most of the carnage continued after tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index plunged 4.4 per cent for its biggest single-day slide since August 2011 and entered a correction Wednesday. Both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 Index erased their annual gains, even as the S&P 500 operating income is surging more than twice the historical average.

Volatility is back, and investors are bracing for more. The MSCI Asia Pacific Index has moved an average 0.9 per cent daily in October through Wednesday, the biggest swings since June 2016, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

As markets opened on Thursday, the colour was red: China’s Shanghai Composite Index lost as much as 2.8 per cent, and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index 2.4 per cent. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 Index also fell more than 2 per cent.

The reasons for the slump in Asia are well known: there’s the US-China trade war, worries about slowing economic and earnings growth, tech shares plunging and rising rates amid Federal Reserve tightening.

But this week, the biggest point of concern for investors including UOB Kay Hian (Hong Kong’s) Steven Leung has been the US dollar, which hit a new high Wednesday.

“The US dollar has been strengthening this year and the pace has accelerated,” said Leung, executive director at UOB in Hong Kong. “Money may continue to go back to the US and make the emerging-markets outflow worse for the rest of this year.”

The strengthening greenback has led to massive foreign outflows from Asian equity funds and has forced local central banks to raise interest rates in order to protect their plunging currencies. That, in turn, has created more pressure on local stock markets, Leung said. He expects equity swings to continue in the region.

The Federal Reserve’s hawkish remarks earlier this month and Chinese stocks falling to a sensitive level — the Shanghai Composite Index is trading near its lowest level since November 2014 — are only adding to the pressure, said Armand Yeung, the managing director of Central Asset Investments in Hong Kong.

“Could Asian markets really withstand four rate hikes in US next year? People should really think about that,” said Yeung. “Most people — like us — are very cautious nowadays and have been reducing their equity exposure, or just focusing on defensive stocks or buying some bonds.”

With an 11 per cent plunge in October, the MSCI Asia Pacific Index is heading for its biggest monthly decline since the height of the financial crisis a decade ago.

It’s fallen more than the S&P 500 and the Stoxx 600, and most of the world’s worst-performing equity markets are from Asia this year. If the weakness continues in tech shares — they account for a fifth of the regional benchmark index and are the biggest declining group in 2018 — investors may just have to brace for more turbulence ahead.

“We still do not know the full outcome of this trade war as the US and China act and react with rhetoric,” said Jim McCafferty, the head of equity research for Asia ex-Japan at Nomura Holdings. “US tech names are also highly volatile, so it is inevitable that this volatility will spread to the supply chain in Asia.”

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