HONG KONG — The market turmoil in China spread around the world Thursday, as global investors grew more anxious about the country’s currency and the health of its economy.
Major U.S. market indexes ended the day down more than 2 percent.
Earlier, Chinese stocks plunged by more than 7 percent, forcing officials for the second time this week to halt trading for the day — in this case, after just 29 minutes.
After the market mess, Chinese authorities made a stark reversal, suspending a market mechanism — a circuit breaker — that halted trading when losses reached a threshold. The measure, put into effect just this week and intended to help stabilize stocks, may have instead worsened fears.
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The big question now is how much of the turmoil reflects rule changes and other policies at the Chinese stock market, and how much is based on broader economic fundamentals that might affect global growth further.
The aftershocks spread to Europe and the United States. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index closed down 2.4 percent, to its lowest level since the start of October. For the last four days, the S&P 500 is down 4.9 percent, producing the worst start to the year in the history of the index.
The narrower Dow Jones industrial average fell 2.3 percent, while the Nasdaq composite index finished down 3.03 percent. The selling was in shares in nearly all industries.
Among Northwest companies, Boeing stock fell 4.2 percent Thursday, Microsoft was down 3.5 percent, Amazon was off 3.9 percent, Starbucks fell 2.5 percent and Costco was down 2.3 percent.
Still, U.S. investors appeared less panicked than during a similar sell-off in August, also triggered by concerns about Chinese growth. U.S. market indexes are still above the summer lows, and many strategists have been arguing this week that the problems in China are unlikely to become a major issue for the U.S. economy.
“We don’t see this as an issue for a major sell-off in the markets,” said Timothy M. Ghriskey, chief investment officer at the Solaris Group. “People are responding like there is nothing new here.”
It has been a rocky start to the new year in global markets. The big fear is that China’s economy, the world’s second-largest after the United States, is slowing down and crimping growth in other countries.
Markets “are in a panic over what’s happening in China,” said Derek Halpenny, European head of global markets research at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in London. “People are saying, ‘Whoa, growth is way worse than we were expecting this year.’ ”
A downbeat Chinese manufacturing report sent stocks spiraling Monday, previously prompting the country’s market to close early. It also set off a global rout, with stocks in Europe and the United States getting hit.
China’s currency, the renminbi, continued to be a sore spot Thursday.
The Chinese government, which closely controls the renminbi, has been allowing the value of the currency to decline steadily as a way to bolster the economy. A weaker renminbi helps exporters, a key engine of growth.
But it is a difficult process to manage. A falling currency is pushing companies and individuals to send money out of the country at a rapid rate, putting additional pressure on the renminbi and unsettling investors.
On Thursday morning before the stock market opened, China’s central bank set the rate for the renminbi at 6.5646 to the dollar, its lowest point in almost six years. When stock trading started, investors dumped shares, once again shutting down the market.
“People are worried about whether they are using currency depreciation to stimulate growth,” said Steven Sun, head of China strategy and Hong Kong and China equity research at HSBC. “At the end of the day, the question is, do they have control? Everyone is asking that question.”
The currency problems risk setting off a chain reaction.
As the renminbi, also known as the yuan, keeps sliding day after day, traders start to expect ever greater declines. The falling currency can then propel further stock losses in China.
That, in turn, can ripple through to the global markets. The surprise currency devaluation in August helped prompt a sell-off around the world.
“It’s getting into a stage where it is self-fulfilling — the weaker the yuan gets, the more selling there will be,” said Hao Hong, the chief market strategist at Bank of Communications International.
Erwin Sanft, the head of China strategy at Macquarie Group, based in Sydney, Australia, predicted further declines in Chinese stocks, but he said that the fall might not continue for long.
“China is quite good at defensive measures,” he said.