The Associated Press
An investor looks at the stock price monitor at a private securities company Thursday, March 22, 2012, in Shanghai, China. Asian stock markets fell Thursday after mixed U.S. housing data and disappointment over the limited scope of China's latest monetary loosening maneuver kept investors on the sidelines. (AP Photo)
LONDON — A run of poor economic figures weighed on markets Thursday in what is turning out to be one of the worst weeks for stocks this year.
Disappointing figures out of China and the 17-country eurozone have prompted investors to cash out of stocks, following a strong run in previous weeks. Many traders are wary of further pushing up indexes, many of which recently hit multi-month highs.
The catalyst to Thursday's retreat was a Chinese manufacturing index compiled by HSBC. Its main index fell to 48.1 in March from 49.6 in February. Figures below 50 indicate that manufacturing is contracting.
Earlier this week, soft Chinese housing data and a warning from miner BHP Billiton have stoked concerns about the outlook in the world's second-largest economy, which has shored up the global economy over the past few years.
A similarly weak eurozone survey from financial information company Markit only added to concerns. Its composite purchasing managers' index, which combines both the services and manufacturing sectors, fell to a below-forecast 48.8 points in March from 49.3 the month before.
Since stocks are a leading indicator of economic activity a few months down the line, investors are worried that the recent improvements have run out of steam.
Jane Foley, an analyst at Rabobank International, said the disappointing data would likely "instill a risk off tone for the remainder of the week."
In Europe, the FTSE 100 index of leading British shares was down 1.1 percent at 5,829 while Germany's DAX fell 1.7 percent to 3,466. The CAC-40 in France was 1.7 percent lower at 3,466.
The euro suffered in the more risk-averse environment, trading 0.5 percent lower at $1.3151.
Wall Street was poised for a retreat, too, with both Dow futures and the broader S&P 500 futures down 0.6 percent.
One potential boon from the re-evaluation in global growth prospects is that the pressure on oil prices has eased. The benchmark New York rate was down $1.39 at $105.88.
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In recent weeks, the rise in oil prices had become an increasing worry in the markets as it stokes inflation and hinders economic activity.
The retreat in Asia earlier was less marked than that in Europe. The Nikkei 225 index in Tokyo ended 0.4 percent higher at 10,127.08 after Japan announced it had posted its first trade surplus in five months in February, on a recovery in auto and electronics exports to the United States.
Hong Kong's Hang Seng closed up 0.2 percent at 20,901.56 while mainland China's benchmark Shanghai Composite Index slipped 0.1 percent to 2,375.77.
Pamela Sampson in Bangkok contributed to this report.