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Most Asia markets slip despite better-than-expected China PMI data

Asia markets were mostly lower on September's first trading day, with sentiment weighed by sharp overnight declines in oil prices and as traders shrugged off a better-than-expected reading on China's manufacturing sector.

Traders were also looking ahead to Friday's key U.S. nonfarm payroll report.

Australia's ASX 200 index closed down 17.43 points, or 0.32 percent, at 5,415.60, with the energy sector down 1.64 percent and the materials sector off 1.65 percent.

In Japan, the Nikkei 225 edged up 39.44 points, or 0.23 percent, to 16,926.84, while across the Korean Strait, the Kospi closed down 1.93 points, or 0.09 percent, at 2,032.72.

Major indexes in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines also traded lower in late-afternoon trade local time.

In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index closed higher by 185.46 points, or 0.81 percent, at 23,162.34, finishing at levels not seen since August 2015. Chinese mainland markets finished lower, with the Shanghai composite down 22.51 points, or 0.73 percent, at 3,062.97, while the Shenzhen composite was off 15.40 points, or 0.75 percent, at 2,017.46.

China markets didn't react much to a government survey of large enterprises in the manufacturing sector, which showed an uptick in factory activity. The official manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) rose to 50.4, beating a Reuters forecast for 49.9 and the July print of 49.9. Levels above 50 indicate expansion, while levels below 50 indicate contraction.

A separate private survey of small-to-medium sized companies, however, revealed stagnating operating conditions. The Caixin China general manufacturing PMI for August came in at 50.0, below July's read of 50.6.

"The stagnation that follows tentative signs of recovery in July may have been caused by a temporary tightening of proactive fiscal policies," said Zhengsheng Zhong, director of macroeconomic analysis at CEBM Group, in a statement. "Downward pressure on China's economy remains and government support to stabilize growth must continue."

Both sets of data were largely ignored by traders in Asian hours, which CIBC Capital Markets' foreign-exchange strategist Patrick Bennett said could suggest traders were "presently comfortable on their outlook for the [Chinese] economy."

Bennett added in a Thursday note that while the current situation in China showed moderate activity levels, it was still prone to downside risks from factors including overcapacity, weak external demand and high levels of corporate debt that would make provision of further monetary stimulus unlikely.

Asia's mostly downbeat trading session followed a lower finish in U.S. equity markets on the last trading day of August, weighed by a sharp drop in oil prices.

"While tight ranges remain the theme ahead of payrolls on Friday, equity markets have ended [August] on a downbeat mood," Rodrigo Catril, a currency strategist at the National Australia Bank, said.

"The sharp fall in oil prices appears to have been the trigger ... on the back of news that U.S. crude oil stockpiles increased to another record high."

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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The Energy Information Administration (EIA) data showed a larger-than-expected weekly build in crude stockpiles, which were up 2.3 million barrels last week, the second consecutive weekly build-up, while analysts had expected a rise of 921,000 barrels, Reuters reported.

During Asian hours on Thursday, U.S. crude futures were up 0.22 percent at $44.80 a barrel as of 4:17 a.m. HK/SIN, after falling 3.6 percent overnight. Global benchmark Brent added 0.13 percent to $46.95, after dropping 2.8 percent on Wednesday.

Energy names in the region finished lower, with Santos shares down 3.15 percent, Beach Energy dropping 3.54 percent and Inpex falling 2.60 percent.

Traders also pointed to dollar strength as one of the reasons for lower commodity prices. The dollar index, which measures the greenback against a basket of currencies, was at 96.198 as of 4:20 p.m. HK/SIN, up from levels below 94.800 last week.

But ANZ's senior commodity strategist, Daniel Hynes, said in a Thursday note that the commodity complex was looking decidedly better than it did at the same time a year earlier.

"Producers have adjusted quickly to the fall in oil prices," Hynes said. "Costs have fallen and drilled, but uncompleted wells have risen to a level where they can rapidly reactivate supply when prices rise."

He added that while the oil market was expected to tighten over the next six months, upside in oil prices was likely capped at $45-$55 a barrel unless inventories fell consistently, which he didn't expect until late 2017.

Kazuhiro Nogi | AFP | Getty Images

In the currency market, the Japanese yen weakened, with dollar strength pushing the dollar/yen pair to 103.57 in the afternoon, up from levels near 100.50 last week.

Japanese exporters traded mixed despite the yen weakness, with Toyota shares closing up 0.74 percent and Nissan gaining 1.63 percent, but Sony fell 0.75 percent.

In company news, South Korean electronics maker Samsung closed down 2.04 percent, following reports the company's Galaxy Note 7 smartphone was facing further supply problems after claims of battery explosions. Reuters said Samsung halted shipments of the Note 7 to the top three South Korean carriers as it conducted additional quality tests.

The smartphone maker also launched its Gear S3 smartwatch on Wednesday as it looked to steal a march on Apple and its heavily-anticipated update of its wearable.

Troubled container shipper Hanjin Shipping on Wednesday filed for court receivership after creditor banks decided to end financial support, according to Reuters. On Thursday morning, local news agency Yonhap said a Hanjin vessel was unable to dock at a local port in South Korea because service providers denied a key service for unloading containers, said Reuters.

Nomura analyst Young Sun Kwon said in a note the direct impact on the South Korean economy would be limited as "the shipping industry has a smaller multiplier effect than most other industries."

But Kwon added the local credit market sentiment will inevitably suffer, adding some limited downside risk to the bank's growth forecast.

Hanjin shares were not trading on Thursday and its last closing price was at 1,240 Korean won, after tumbling from levels near 1,800 won earlier this week.

Stateside, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 53.42 points, or 0.29 percent, to 18,400.88. The S&P 500 fell 5.17 points, or 0.24 percent, to 2,170.95, while the Nasdaq was down 9.77 points, or 0.19 percent, at 5,213.22.

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