Bangkok - Weaker-than-expected US manufacturing figures, just days after China announced its own production slowdown, sent world stock markets down on Wednesday.

A measure of US manufacturing activity ticked down from 49.8 in July to 49.6 in August, according to the Institute for Supply Management, a private trade group. It was the third straight month of a reading below 50, which indicates a contraction.

European stocks fell in early trading. Britain's FTSE 100 lost 0.6 percent to 5,637.17. Germany's DAX shed 0.4 percent to 6,903.34 and France's CAC-40 fell 0.7 percent to 3,376.57.

Wall Street headed for a lower opening, with Dow Jones industrial futures down 0.5 percent to 12,986. S&P 500 futures lost 0.6 percent to 1,397.50.

The US report comes amid shrinking factory activity in almost every major economy, including the 17-country eurozone, Britain, China, Japan and Brazil. In China, factory activity fell last month to its lowest level in more than three years.

Asian stocks sustained broad losses. Japan's Nikkei 225 index fell 1.1 percent to close at 8,679.82. Hong Kong's Hang Seng lost 1.5 percent to 19,145.07 and South Korea's Kospi dropped 1.7

percent at 1,874.03. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 shed 0.6 percent to 4,278.80.

Investors are remaining cautious while awaiting a meeting of the European Central Bank on Thursday, during which President Mario Draghi is expected to announce details of a new bond-buying programme intended to help countries with high borrowing costs such as Spain and Italy.

Additionally, the weakness in US manufacturing may help persuade the Federal Reserve to announce new action after its meeting next week.

“If we don't see any good, positive catalyst, investors will be very reluctant to buy stocks at this point. We are waiting for the ECB, US jobs data and other major US economic data,” said Jackson Wong, vice president at Tanrich Securities in Hong Kong.

Other analysts cautioned that central bank actions may be too little to protect markets from volatility through the end of the year.

“Whether upcoming ECB and Fed actions will be sufficient to prevent an escalation in risk aversion is debatable especially as markets have already priced in a lot of potential action,” analysts at Credit Agricole CIB in Hong Kong said in a market commentary.

Further headwinds came on Monday, when Moody's ratings agency warned that it could downgrade the credit score for the European Union as a whole, citing the mounting financial strain of the crisis on key countries such as Germany and France.

These countries are not only exposed to the higher costs of rescuing weaker countries but their industries are also suffering from weakening demand.

Among individual stocks, shares of Lenovo Group plunged 7.6

percent in Hong Kong after news reports said NEC Corp. announced it will sell its entire 2.7 percent stake in the Chinese PC maker.

In Hong Kong, China Minsheng Banking Corp. dropped 3.7 percent and China Merchants Bank Co. fell 3.1 percent due to concerns about growth and asset quality, analysts said.

Benchmark oil for October delivery was down 22 cents to $95.08 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell $1.17 to finish at $95.30 per barrel on the Nymex on Tuesday.

In currencies, the euro fell to $1.2510 from $1.2571 late Tuesday in New York. The dollar fell to 78.37 yen from 78.45 yen. -