China stock rout worsens as watchdog opens probe

Shareholders on a security trading floor in Shenyang, China.
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Shareholders on a security trading floor in Shenyang, China.

The bloodbath in Chinese equities extended into Friday, with the benchmark Shanghai Composite plunging as much as 7 percent amid reports that the securities market regulator has launched a probe into suspected market manipulation.

The China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) had set up a team to look at "clues of illegal manipulation across markets," spokesman Zhang Xiaojun said in comments on the CSRC's official Weibo microblog late on Thursday.

"Cases that meet legal standards will be immediately investigated, seriously cracked down upon according to law, and those suspected of a crime will be resolutely transferred to the police for investigation," he said. Meanwhile, the China Financial Futures Exchange has suspended 19 accounts in the past month for short-selling, sources told Reuters.

The market is now down about 28 percent from its June 12 peak, firmly in bear market territory, despite intensifying efforts by authorities to shore up investor confidence. The market closed down 5.8 percent lower on Friday.

Over the weekend, the People's Bank of China unveiled a bigger-than-expected monetary easing package, cutting both interest rates and the reserve requirement ratio (RRR) for banks. A few days later, the CSRC eased regulations on using borrowed money to speculate on stock markets, canceling a rule that required investors to make additional guarantees if their margin ratio reached 130 percent or else face forced liquidation of their shares.

Regulators also revealed plans to allow pension funds managed by local governments to invest in the stock market for the first time.

"The correction that we're seeing in stocks is fascinating and the fact that the authorities are clearly nervous should make markets nervous," said Bill Blain, a strategist at Mint Partners in London.

Technical levels

With the Shanghai Composite breaking below the psychological barrier of 4,000 on Thursday, technical strategists say 3,400 – a strong long-term support level – is the next marker to watch.

"I don't think it will hit 3,400 today, but I could be proven wrong," Daryl Guppy, trader and author of Trend Trading, told CNBC. The index closed at 3,684. If it does break through 3,400, the next level to keep an eye on is 3,000, Guppy said.

"The index was trading below that in December so if it falls below 3,400, that would be the next downside target," Guppy said.

Weibo reacts

With China's equity market dominated by retail investors, who account for an estimated 80 percent of stock trading, it's no surprise that violent swings in the market have grabbed the attention of social media users in the mainland.

The term "4,000 point" made it to the "Top 50 hottest search topics" on Weibo following Thursday's market close. It was ranked 42nd early Friday. One user wrote: "From 4,000 to 5,000 points, it took 2 months, but from 5,000 to 4,000 it took just one week. This financial war is just not for commoners like us to play. [Heartbreak icon]"

Others called on the government to do more to rescue the market from its swoon.

"Today is another crucial day for the government to 'save face' after being hit in the face for so many days now. A-share traders must be on edge now, complaining about how authorities have allowed market manipulation to wreck havoc in the markets. If they don't step in to save the market, investors will lose hope soon," a user wrote.