BANGKOK — Asian stock markets fell Thursday, weighed down by a contraction in China's manufacturing that adds to signs a shaky recovery in the world's No. 2 economy is slowing.
HSBC Corp. said its preliminary Purchasing Managers Index fell to a seven-month low of 49.6 in May from April's 50.4. Numbers below 50 indicate that activity is contracting. Analysts had expected a slight decline to 50.3 for the most recent month.
Investors also recoiled from stocks after mixed messages by the U.S. Federal Reserve on the future of its massive bond-buying program sent Wall Street on a rollercoaster ride.
U.S. stocks shot up early Wednesday after Fed chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress that it was too soon for the central bank to pull back on its monetary stimulus. The Fed has been buying massive amounts of government bonds and keeping short-term interest rates near zero to encourage people and businesses to borrow and spend more.
The Dow ended the day lower, however, after minutes released from the Fed's latest policy meeting showed some Fed officials are willing to scale back the stimulus effort, dubbed quantitative easing or QE, as early as June if the economy picks up.
Investors have flocked to stocks because returns on bonds have dwindled due to the Fed's efforts to keep rates down. Bu the Fed minutes sowed doubt whether massive gains in stock markets will continue. There are also fears about how the economy will perform once monetary stimulus is withdrawn, another negative for stocks.
"Bernanke wants to wait and see how the data unfold before tapering back on QE. Three or four more hawkish members think they've seen enough and, absent surprises, want to get started as early as June," said analysts at DBS Bank Ltd. in Singapore.
Hong Kong's Hang Seng dived 1.7 percent to 22,867.47. South Korea's Kospi lost 0.7 percent to 1,980.21. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 plunged 1.9 percent to 5,069.60. Benchmarks in Singapore, Taiwan and mainland China also fell.
Japan's Nikkei 225 index bucked the trend, gaining 0.2 percent to 15,662.95.
On Wednesday, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 0.5 percent to close at 15,307.17. The Standard & Poor's 500 fell 0.8 percent to 1,655.35. The Nasdaq composite index fell 1 percent to 3,463.30.
Benchmark oil for July delivery was down 59 cents to $93.69 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract lost $1.90 to close at $94.28 a barrel on the Nymex on Wednesday.
In currencies, the euro $1.2842 from $1.2845 late Wednesday in New York. The dollar fell to 103.04 from 103.15.
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