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Asian stocks mostly lower as oil hits new troughs

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[HONG KONG] Asian markets mostly slipped on Tuesday, following a sell-off in Europe and the United States, as oil prices plunged to more than five-year lows and data indicated Chinese manufacturing activity shrank in December.

The dollar and euro edged lower against the yen after losing pace Monday owing to the uncertainty caused by the weak crude, which has increased pressure on Russia's economy, spooking investors.

Tokyo tumbled 1.80 per cent, Hong Kong lost 0.65 per cent, Sydney slipped 0.39 per cent and Seoul was 0.62 per cent lower, while Shanghai rose 0.55 percent.

In China, banking giant HSBC said its preliminary index of manufacturing activity came in at 49.5 this month, compared with 50 in November. Anything below 50 points to contraction and anything above shows growth.

The figures are the latest in a long line that show the world's number two economy is slowing. However, Shanghai shares advanced - extending a recent bull run - on hopes the government will introduce new measures to spur growth.

Oil-linked firms are being hammered after crude prices plunged by about half from their June highs, weighed down by an oversupply on world markets, falling demand and OPEC's decision to maintain high output levels.

Despite the benefits cheap oil brings to some, global stock markets have been dragged down by energy giants and analysts warn there could be further falls on the way.

On Tuesday in Asia, US benchmark West Texas Intermediate for January delivery fell 38 cents to $55.53 while Brent crude for January eased 48 cents to US$60.58 - both to levels last seen in mid-2009.

US shares tumbled, with the Dow off 0.58 per cent, the S&P 500 falling 0.63 per cent and the Nasdaq slumping 1.04 per cent.

Earlier Monday, London's FTSE 100 ended down 1.87 per cent, while equity markets in France and Germany fell more than 2.5 per cent.

"Oil prices continue to slide, and that is now the chief worry to Russia, which is essentially an oil-exporting economy," Yoshihiro Okumura, general manager at Chibagin Asset Management, told Dow Jones Newswires.

"The creeping fear is that Russia may default, reminding investors of the prior Greek fiscal panic, and require a bailout. Beyond that, a 'domino effect' of worsening fiscal conditions at other oil-exporting nations may take hold.

"Oil prices look far from settled at the mid-US$50 level, so more pain may yet be in store." Moscow was forced to ramp up interest rates early Tuesday, to 17 percent from 10.5 per cent, after the ruble plunged to a fresh record-low against the dollar.

The slide came as the Russian central bank said weak oil prices could lead to a contraction of nearly five percent next year and as tensions with the United States over the Ukraine crisis increased.

The uncertainty pushed the yen up as traders looked for safer investments. The dollar was buying 117.75 yen early Tuesday against 117.81 yen in New York The euro was at 146.48 yen from 146.50 yen, and US$1.2441 from US$1.2435.

The yen is considered a safe haven in times of turmoil.

Gold was at US$1,198.07 an ounce compared with US$1,210.54 late Monday.

AFP