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Stocks sink on first day of 2016 on China, Mideast worries

Posted January 4

— The new year got off to an inauspicious start on Wall Street as stocks tumbled Monday in a global sell-off triggered by new fears of a slowdown in China and rising tensions in the Middle East.

The Dow Jones industrial average clawed back from a steep early decline but still ended down 1.6 percent, its biggest loss in two weeks. Markets in Asia and Europe were down more.

The wave of selling on the first trading day of 2016 served as a reminder that worries over the fragile global economy that weighed on financial markets last year are not going away anytime soon.

"It's going to be a turbulent year," said Kevin Kelly, chief investment officer of Recon Capital Partners. "This isn't a blip."

Still, Mike Palmer, a financial adviser at Ark Royal in Raleigh, urged investors to take a deep breath and not overreact.

"Sticking to an investment discipline during market turbulence is very difficult for everyone, but I kind of jokingly tell people, if you want to do something, stand firm. It's a lot like a bar of soap. The more you mess with your investment portfolio, typically, the less you have," Palmer said.

He noted that, percentage-wise, Monday's drop wasn't that large.

The trouble started in China, where weak manufacturing figures in the world's second-largest economy sent the Shanghai Composite Index plunging 6.9 percent before Chinese authorities halted trading.

Investors were also unnerved by heightened tensions between Saudi Arabia, a huge oil supplier, and Iran. Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric, prompting Iranian protesters to set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran on Sunday. The price of oil swung wildly.

In the U.S., the Dow slumped 276.09 points to 17,148.94. It was down as much as 467 points earlier in the day.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index lost 31.28 points, or 1.5 percent, to 2,012.66. The Nasdaq composite fell 104.32 points, or 2.1 percent, to 4,903.09.

The selling in China spread quickly across markets in other Asian countries, then to Europe. The DAX index in Germany tumbled 4.3 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 fell 2.4 percent, while France's CAC 40 dropped 2.5 percent.

Huang Cengdong, an analyst for Sinolink Securities in Shanghai, said he expects more turmoil in the Chinese stock market ahead of corporate earnings reports. "There will be heavy selling in the near future," Huang said.

Elsewhere in Asia, Japan's Nikkei 225 tumbled 3.1 percent, and Hong Kong's Hang Seng retreated 2.7 percent. South Korea's Kospi closed 2.2 percent lower.

"Capital’s going to go where it’s wanted and stay where it’s well treated, and the Chinese, I think, are kind of trying to keep control over markets. That’s very difficult if you’re going to fully embrace capitalism," said Palmer of Ark Royal.

In the U.S., investors were also worried about data suggesting that slow overseas growth and low oil prices are continuing to hurt U.S. manufacturers. A report from the Institute for Supply Management showed manufacturing contracted last month at the fastest pace in more than six years as factories cut jobs and new orders shrank.

In China, the Caixin/Markit index of manufacturing fell in December for the 10th straight month. The resulting stock drop markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen led authorities to halt trading under a "circuit breaker" mechanism announced late last year. It was the first time China used the system.

The slowdown in China is worrisome around the globe because the country's manufacturers are huge buyers of raw materials, machinery and energy from other countries. Also, many automakers and consumer goods companies are hoping to sell more to increasingly wealthy Chinese households.

Chinese authorities have been trying for months to restore confidence in the country's market after a plunge in June rattled global markets and prompted a panicked, multibillion-dollar government intervention.

Ernie Cecilia, chief investment officer of Bryn Mawr Trust, warned that investors shouldn't overreact to Monday's drops.

"A weak first day of the year doesn't portend that 2016 will be a down year," Cecilia said. "There are a lot of trading days left."

The North Carolina State Treasurer's Office has been tailoring its investment strategy over the past two years to smooth out the effect of market volatility on state pension funds, spokesman Brad Young said. Stocks make up around 41 percent of the pension fund, down from 46 percent in 2013, with bonds, real estate and private equity making up larger portions, he said.

"Stocks will go up and down over time, but the North Carolina Retirement Systems portfolio is solid and well-positioned for the long-term," Young said in an email to WRAL News.

Escalating tensions in the Middle East briefly sent the price of oil surging. Saudi Arabia said Sunday it is severing diplomatic relations with Iran, a development that could potentially threaten oil supplies.

"Oil markets will be concerned that this could be an incremental step in a deteriorating political situation that might ultimately threaten world oil supply," Ric Spooner, chief analyst at CMC Markets, said in a commentary.

Benchmark U.S. crude fell 28 cents to close at $36.76 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Bond prices rose, sending yields lower. Investors tend to park money in U.S. government bonds when they are fearful of weak economic growth or turbulence in stocks and other markets. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.24 percent from 2.27 percent.

In metals trading, gold rose $15 to $1,075.20 an ounce, silver lost 4 cents to $13.84 an ounce and copper fell six cents to $2.08 a pound.

Brent crude, the international standard, edged down 6 cents to close at $37.22 a barrel in London.

In other energy trading in New York, wholesale gasoline rose 2 cents to $1.291 a gallon, heating oil rose a quarter of a cent to $1.126 a gallon and natural gas edged down 0.3 cent to $2.334 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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AP Business Writer Youkyung Lee in Seoul, South Korea and AP researcher Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this story.

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