By Koh Gui Qing
BEIJING (Reuters) - Worries of a deepening China economic slowdown intensified on Friday after a private survey showed the factory sector shrank at its fastest rate in almost 6-1/2-years in August, hammering global stocks and commodity prices.
The gloomy figure sent investors fleeing for cover in gold and bonds, fearing China's sagging economy would translate into slower global growth and muddy the outlook for the timing of the first U.S. interest rate hike in nearly a decade.
World markets had already been on edge after China's surprise devaluation of the yuan last week and a near-collapse in its stock markets in early summer.
"Uncertainty about China growth is now the main swing factor in markets," said Tim Condon, an economist at ING Group in Singapore.
"Today's data reinforced the doubts about global growth."
The preliminary Caixin/Markit China Manufacturing Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) stood at 47.1 in August, well below a Reuters poll median of 47.7 and down from July's final 47.8.
It was the worst reading since March 2009, in the depths of the global financial crisis, and the sixth straight one below the 50-point level, which separates growth in activity from contraction on a monthly basis.
The downdraft from China is rattling economies of its trade-reliant Asian neighbours and prompting many Western companies to reduce investments and look for ways to cut costs.
South Korea, which counts China as its biggest trading partner, said on Friday its exports slumped nearly 12 percent in the first 20 days of August from a year ago.
Taiwan reported on Thursday that its export orders in July fell more than expected, with a 14.1 percent slump in orders from China and smaller declines from Japan and Europe, leaving the United States as the lone bright spot.
While a similar factory survey in Japan pointed to a pick-up in activity there due to stronger domestic demand, policymakers in Tokyo are keenly aware of the dangers if China slows further.
Japanese Economics Minister Akira Amari said on Friday he expects China's government to take steps to prevent its economic slowdown from becoming a global problem.
The flash PMIs are the earliest activity measure to be released on global economies each month, and are closely followed by investors. Similar surveys are due to be released in Europe and the United States later on Friday, and disappointing readings could spark further market mayhem.
U.S. stock futures fell sharply after China's PMI report and most Asian stock markets and the Australian dollar extended early losses. Overnight on Wall Street, the S&P 500 <.SPX> sank to a more than six-month low on concerns about how China's slowdown would impact U.S. firms' earnings and global growth.
Analysts still expect the U.S. central bank to raise interest rates later this year, though minutes from the U.S. Federal Reserve's last meeting in July showed policymakers discussed China, Greece's debt crisis and the weak state of the global economy.
WEAKNESS ACROSS THE BOARD
A detailed breakdown of China's PMI survey showed conditions deteriorating on almost every level in August. Factory output sank to a near four-year low as firms laid off more workers, while domestic and export orders fell at a faster rate than in July.
Following three decades of blistering double-digit economic growth, Chinese authorities have had limited success in shoring up activity this year despite four interest rates cuts since November.
Worse, last week's shock 2 percent devaluation in the yuan and a near-collapse in Chinese shares over the summer that was countered by a massive stock market rescue do not appear to have calmed investor jitters.
The yuan has slid nearly 3 percent since its Aug. 11 devaluation, a fall that some analysts say is too modest to boost Chinese exports, but notable enough to raise fears of competitive currency devaluations between governments.
The speed at which China's economy is losing steam has led some analysts to warn that the government may struggle to meet its official economic growth target of 7 percent this year if it doesn't ratchet up policy support. Growth in China's factory output, retail sales and investment all disappointed in July.
Some economists believe that China's present growth levels could already be closer to half of the 7 percent official figure reported for the second quarter.
With China's economic outlook so murky, some firms say it's best to be cautious and not bet on a turnaround in the near future.
"It's hard to predict what China is doing," Ivan Glasenberg, the chief executive of global mining and commodities firm Glencore said this week after reporting a slump in first-half earnings.
Glencore is cutting its spending plans for this year as China's slowdown contributes to sharp falls in commodity prices.
(Reporting by Beijing Newsroom and Koh Gui Qing in BEIJING, Choonsik Yoo in SEOUL and Stanley White in TOKYO; Editing by Kim Coghill)