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Tokyo bucks regional slump; rest of Asia track US losses

Asian equity markets were lower across the board on Wednesday as a string of data from China fell short of market expectations, indicating a persisting slowdown in the world's second-largest economy. A tumble on Wall Street overnight, sparked by growing investor anxiety about a looming U.S. interest rate hike, also depressed sentiment.

Retail sales in the mainland grew 10.7 percent in the January-February period from the year earlier, lower than expectations for an 11.7 percent increase. Meanwhile, industrial output rose an annual 6.8 percent in the period, also missing the 7.8 percent forecast.

Overnight, U.S. stocks retreated to one-month lows on the back of a surge in the U.S. dollar and some weakness in oil. The blue-chip Dow lost 1.9 percent, wiping out its gains for the year. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite closed down 1.7 percent, with the former posting its worst decline since January 5.

Symbol
Name
Price
 
Change
%Change
NIKKEI
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HSI
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ASX 200
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SHANGHAI
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KOSPI
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CNBC 100
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Mainland bourses mixed

China's Shanghai Composite closed up 0.2 percent after wavering between gains and losses on the back of softer-than-expected economic data.

Blue-chip banking stocks held up thereby capping declines on the bourses; Bank of China climbed 2 percent, while China Construction Bank and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China advanced 1.1 and 0.9 percent each. A positive showing by insurers also supported positive momentum in the bourse; China Life Insurance and China Pacific Insurance rose over 1 percent each.

In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index shed 0.6 percent to a 7-week low of 23,759.

Prudential pulled back 1.3 percent, resuming trade on Wednesday following news that chief executive officer Tidjane Thiam is leaving for the same job at Credit Suisse. Shares of the U.K. insurer remain halted in Singapore.

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Nikkei rises 0.3%

Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 reversed a lower open after receiving a leg-up from better-than-expected machinery orders. The leading indicator of capital spending for the month of January notched down 1.7 percent, smaller than the 4.1 percent slump estimated by Reuters' economists.

Clothing store chain operator Fast Retailing and robot maker Fanuc, all heavily weighted components, turned positive mid-morning thereby lifting the bourse.

Exporter stocks remained mixed even though dollar-yen inched up 0.2 percent to 121.2, leading to calls that the long-standing inverse correlation between the currency and Japanese stock prices has broken down.

"The [Yen-Nikkei] relationship has broken down to the extent that you have to be cautious about some of the exporters," Tim Seymour, CIO of Triogem Asset Management, told CNBC Asia's "Squawk Box." "I like what's going on in the auto sector as global demand continues to be very strong. But after the run Toyota Motor's had, there may be a case of a breakdown."

Among Japanese automakers, Nissan led declines with a 1 percent slump, while Honda and Suzuki Motor sold off 0.8 percent each. Toyota shed 0.2 percent.

ASX drops 0.5%

Australia's S&P ASX 200 index finished lower, but managed to claw back some losses from a four-week intra-day low of 5,748, as the resources sector found some reprieve.

Heavyweight miners like BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals slumped 5 and 3.5 percent each, while junior players like BC Iron closed up 2.7 percent. Oil-related counters were mixed; while Woodside Petroleum held on to a 1.4 percent loss, Oil Search rebounded 1.3 percent.

Meanwhile, the Australian dollar touched its lowest levels since May 2009 following remarks by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) assistant governor Christopher Kent, who said low interest rates will continue to underpin the Australian economy though "better growth is not guaranteed." The local currency was last quoted at $0.7601 to the dollar, after going as low as $0.7590 following the raft of economic indicators from China.

On the domestic data front, a measure of Australian consumer sentiment dipped 1.2 percent in March, down from a 13-month high.

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Kospi sheds 0.2%

South Korea's Kospi index edged down for the third straight session to a two-week low ahead of the Bank of Korea's monthly policy meeting tomorrow. Financials were among the hardest-hit on Wednesday; Shinhan Financial and Hana Financial retreated 2.1 and 1.9 percent, respectively, while blue-chip KB Financial Group and Woori Bank lost 0.4 and 1 percent each.

The second-heaviest weighted stock, Hyundai Motor, recouped early losses to charge 2 percent after it said it would build a second U.S. factory. Sister firm Kia Motors closed down 0.3 percent as markets digested news that it plans to start selling cars in Mexico in July.

Rest of Asia

Meanwhile, the Bank of Thailand unveiled its first rate cut in one year, bringing its policy rates down by 25-basis-point to 1.75 percent. The surprise move jolted the key SET index, which moved up from a one-month low to close up 0.8 percent.

The New Zealand dollar eased 0.3 percent to a 5-week low of $0.7250 against the greenback on expectations that U.S. interest rates could rise by mid-year and as the country's police began investigations about an anonymous blackmailer who threatened to poison infant formula in New Zealand.