07/08/2015 05:38 EDT | Updated 07/08/2016 01:12 EDT

China tells companies, executives to buy stocks, promises credit in bid to halt price slide

BEIJING — In a flurry of new moves to halt a stock market slide, China's government on Wednesday told state companies and corporate executives to buy shares, raised the amount of equities insurance companies can hold and promised more credit to finance trading.

Hundreds of companies have announced a halt to trading in their shares after emergency measures announced last weekend failed to stop a slide that has dragged down the benchmark Shanghai Composite Index by more than 30 per cent since early June.

Despite the new measures, the Shanghai index lost another 5.9 per cent on Wednesday and Hong Kong's Hang Seng index closed down 5.8 per cent after earlier diving as much as 8.5 per cent.

The decline threatens to fuel political tensions and set back Communist Party plans to use financial markets to make China's state-dominated economy more productive. The party wants to encourage stock ownership but small investors whose holdings have plunged in value say they will no longer buy shares.

"The central government made considerable reputational investment in the rally over the last year, particularly via ample cheerleading from state media," said IHS Global Insight economist Brian Jackson in a report. "As a result, support is likely to remain extraordinary, although that will find difficulty reversing the rapid shift in attitudes by retail investors."

On Wednesday, the Cabinet agency that oversees China's biggest state-owned companies said it had told them not to sell shares and to buy more "in order to safeguard market stability."

In a separate order, the securities regulator told directors, executives and senior managers of publicly traded companies who have sold shares in those companies within the past six months to buy them back and said they are barred from selling. It said they are required to buy more if the price falls by more than 30 per cent in the next 10 days.

The insurance regulator said the proportion of their assets Chinese insurers are allowed to invest in stocks will be increased to 40 per cent from 30 per cent. The agency said the amount of a single blue-chip company's shares that an insurance company can buy will be increased to 10 per cent from 5 per cent.

The central bank said it will provide "ample liquidity to support stock market stability" through a state-owned company that lends to brokerages to finance share purchases, a practice known as margin lending. The People's Bank of China gave no indication how much money it might inject into the system.

The central bank statement was read on state TV's national midday news.

Chinese authorities have tried to reassure investors the price decline is normal following a boom that saw the Shanghai index soar by more than 150 per cent since late 2014. On Monday, the flagship ruling party newspaper, People's Daily, said the economy can maintain steady growth and provide "solid fundamentals" for "healthy development of capital markets."

The market boom began after state media said last year stocks were cheap, which led investors to believe Beijing would prevent prices from falling. It has made profits for some traders but many novice investors who piled in just before the peak hold shares that are worth less than they paid.

Jackson, of IHS Global Insight, noted a survey by the Southwestern University of Finance found 8.8 per cent of households participated in the stock market in the second quarter of this year, up from 6.1 per cent in the first quarter.

"That confirms that a substantial number of households rushed in just as valuations were peaking, but also that the total exposure of private households in China is relatively low compared to Western countries, where often a third or more participate in equity markets," he said.

The emergency measures announced so far are aimed at shoring up share prices of major state-owned companies, while smaller and private companies have received little support.

A weekend pledge by state-owned brokerages to buy blue-chip stocks helped helped to boost prices of government companies such as PetroChina Ltd., Asia's biggest oil and gas producer. But shares in smaller companies have fallen.

That has prompted hundreds of companies to ask the mainland's two exchanges to suspend trading in their shares after prices of some fell by more than 50 per cent. Dozens with shares traded in Hong Kong also have requested suspensions.

Some 787 companies had suspended trading on the exchanges in Shanghai and the southern city of Shenzhen by the end of trading Tuesday, according to the newspaper China Business News. It said more asked to be suspended later Tuesday, raising the total to more than 1,000.

That would be almost 36 per cent of the total of 2,802 companies traded in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

In Hong Kong, shares in which trading was suspended included Sinopec, the country's No. 2 state-owned oil company.

Joe McDonald, The Associated Press