Asian stocks fell sharply on growth concerns as about $85 billion in automatic U.S. government spending cuts went into effect and data showed China's recovery is losing momentum. Italy edged closer to a new election after elections last week resulted in political deadlock. Commodities were subdued and the euro traded weak as data out of the euro zone and China underlined concerns over the global economic outlook.
China's Shanghai Composite index tumbled 3.7 percent, dragged down by property developers after Beijing announced a fresh set of measures to curb property speculation. Investors also digested weak service sector data, which showed growth in China's increasingly important services sector expanded at its slowest pace in five months in February.
The non-manufacturing purchasing managers' index fell to 54.5 last month from 56.2 in January, a report released by the National Bureau of Statistics and the China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing revealed. The slowdown in the pace of service-sector growth along with last week's worse than expected manufacturing data raised fresh concerns over sluggish growth in the world's second-largest economy. Hong Kong's Hang Seng index lost 1.5 percent.
Tokyo stocks rose to a fresh 2013 high on hopes for bolder monetary policy after the government nominee for the Bank of Japan chief vowed to consider all means necessary to achieve the 2 percent inflation target at the earliest possible date. The Nikkei average added 0.4 percent, while the broader Topix index briefly topped the 1,000 mark before ending 0.8 percent higher at 992.
Brokerage Daiwa Securities Group rallied 2.7 percent, lender Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group rose 1.7 percent, realty firm Sumitomo Realty & Development jumped 3.9 percent and Mitsubishi Estate advanced 3.6 percent on continuing hopes of central bank easing measures.
Companies with large underlying land assets and warehouse operators attracted strong buying. West Japan Railway and East Japan Railway rose 3.5 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively, while Mitsubishi Logistics jumped 4.2 percent and Toyo Logistics soared 24 percent. China-linked Komatsu fell 2.7 percent, weighed down by a sharp fall in Chinese equities after Beijing tightened mortgage rules to cool the property market.
Australian shares ended deep in the red, weighed down by weak domestic and Chinese data. The benchmark S&P/ASX 200 fell 1.5 percent and the broader All Ordinaries index shed 1.4 percent, with miners leading the decliners on fresh concerns over China. Global miner BHP Billiton fell 3.5 percent on going ex-dividend, while rival Rio Tinto lost 3.7 percent. Lynas closed unchanged after it appointed Eric Noyez, the company's chief operating officer and president, to the board. He will become the company's chief executive officer at the end of this month.
News Corporation edged down marginally after announcing its decision to sell its 44 percent stake in New Zealand's Sky Network Television. Shares of Boral declined 2.3 percent after the building materials manufacturer unveiled plans to merge its construction materials and cement divisions.
The Australian dollar hit a seven-month low after a report showed home-building approvals unexpectedly fell for a second month in January, adding to speculation the Reserve Bank will cut interest rates this year. Investors eye Tuesday's RBA decision on interest rates and fourth-quarter GDP data due out on Wednesday for further direction.
South Korea's Kospi average fell 0.7 percent on institutional selling amid worries about U.S. spending cuts and China's growth. Steel maker POSCO lost 3 percent and chemical maker Lotte Chemical slumped 7.6 percent, weighed down by slowing services and manufacturing growth in China. Closer home, consumer prices in South Korea rose 1.4 percent in February from a year earlier, Statistics Korea said, easing from 1.5 percent in January. Inflation remained beneath the central bank's target range of 2 to 4 percent for the fourth consecutive month.
New Zealand shares lost ground after Rupert Murdoch's News said it will sell its 44 percent stake in Sky Network Television at a discount. Shares of Sky Network were placed on a trading halt, while the benchmark NZX-50 index fell 1.5 percent from a near five-year high. Chemical maker Nuplex Industries led the decliners on the exchange, dropping over 4 percent, while Fletcher Building, Telecom, Fisher & Paykel Healthcare and Contact Energy fell 1-2 percent.
The Warehouse Group declined 0.6 percent after the retailer signed an agreement to take a majority stake in online sporting gear retailer Torpedo7. Among those that gained, Michael Hill International and Diligent Board Member Services rose over 3 percent each.
Elsewhere, India's benchmark Sensex was down 0.4 percent, Indonesia's Jakarta Composite index lost a percent, Malaysia's KLSE Composite slipped marginally, Singapore's Straits Times index fell around a percent and the Taiwan Weighted average retreated 1.2 percent.
U.S. stocks posted modest gains on Friday, as upbeat economic data on manufacturing and consumer confidence helped investors shrug off lingering worries about the impact of automatic government spending cuts. The Dow and the tech-heavy Nasdaq rose about 0.3 percent each, while the S&P 500 added 0.2 percent.
by RTT Staff Writer
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