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Asia's 'ant' and 'moth' investors test broker nerves

* Six brokers cut margin loans in South Korea

* Shorted stocks soaring in Australia and Japan

* GameStop frenzy lifts Australian nickel company GME

SINGAPORE, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Asia’s retail investors, emboldened by the meteoric rise of U.S. videogame retailer GameStop, are taking on short sellers and making their brokers nervous enough to cut off margin lending.

In South Korea, small investors known as “ants” have borrowed so much money to dabble in stocks that at least half a dozen brokerages have stopped offering them leverage.

GameStop’s global impact is the latest manifestation of a day-trading mania driven by amateur investors that is boosting the price of assets ranging from cryptocurrencies to new stock market listings.

“Not afraid, not flinching,” said Ji-Han Kim, who works at a food delivery chain in Seoul and whose stock portfolio includes Chinese drone-maker Ehang, which he says has made him a 412% return, and chip giant Samsung Electronics.

“I see it as a bubble that doesn’t burst for a while.”

However, this euphoria is not universal and Korea Financial Investment Association data shows six South Korean brokerages stopped margin lending this month, after loan values hit a record 21.6 trillion won ($19.3 billion) this week.

“Any more lending to ants would go against the capital requirement ratio for brokerages,” said Kwak Sang-jun, a stockbroker at Shinhan Investment Corp in Seoul.

“No-one expected the rally would be this explosive, and trading demand from retail investors would grow this explosive.”

The retail phenomenon is widespread across Asia, where small-time traders have long played an outsized role, especially in markets such as South Korea and China. But investors are becoming younger, much more leveraged and influential.

In Thailand, where they are known as “moths”, such investors piled into local cannabis-related stocks on Thursday in anticipation of regulatory changes by the government there.

In Hong Kong, retail investors borrowed more than $50 billion to buy shares in Chinese video sharing app Kuaishou Technology’s float.

And in Australia and Japan, heavily shorted stocks are surging as small investors try and emulate the squeeze that has driven GameStop shares up 17-fold in little more than two weeks.

GAMESTOP NOT OVER

GameStop has become the poster-stock for apparently coordinated small-investor buying, marshalled over online forums such as Reddit, and aimed at inflicting pain on big hedge funds who had bet it would struggle and its stock would fall.

It was the most-traded stock at brokers Stockal and Vested Finance in India and a tiny Australian nickel explorer with a similar ticker, GME Resources, rose as much as 50% on Thursday in Sydney.

Such trades lit up market forums such as chat app Telegram, Kakao Talk in South Korea and 2 channel in Japan, as prices reacted to the retail army, though with much less of the fury of Reddit forums and much more enthusiasm for locking in gains.

“People are calling me and saying: I’m FOMO, I think I’m missing something,” said Chris Brankin, CEO at TD Ameritrade in Singapore, a platform for local investors to buy U.S. stocks.

Along with fellow retail darling AMC Entertainment, GameStop has topped volumes over last few days for Saxo Capital Markets, said its Asia-Pacific CEO Adam Reynolds, adding new account volumes are “insane”, with 80% of new clients under 40.

“Because they’re getting better and because they’re getting more confidence, it’s sometimes the institutional (investors) who are getting a bit overrun,” Reynolds said.

Retail investors made up 67% of average daily trading volume on South Korea’s main KOSPI market last year and a “buy everything” market has lifted it 113% since March.

SHORT SHRIFT

Asian markets were jittery on Thursday and painful for short sellers, as some heavily shorted companies jumped.

In Australia, funeral operator InvoCare, salmon farmer Tassal and poultry producer Inghams, all of which have short interest levels higher than 8% according to regulatory data, leapt to multi month highs.

Japan’s most shorted stock, telecom equipment maker Anritsu Corp, touched a two-decade high.

In China, where investors are more familiar with the swings and roundabouts of a market in which fickle retail buyers command price moves, traders were admiring of the role adopted by U.S. retail investors but said that such stock volatility would trigger action by Chinese regulators.

“Retail investors in the U.S. are marvellous,” read one well-liked post on a chat app run by Hithink RoyalFlush.

For Chinese cryptocurrency entrepreneur Justin Sun, who bid$4.6 million for a charity lunch with Warren Buffet in 2019, the GameStop party is not over.

“I’ll be buying $1 mil of $GME tonight,” he said on Twitter.

“Watch out, Asians are coming!” ($1 = 1,118.8500 won)

Reporting by Tom Westbrook in Singapore; Additional reporting by Cynthia Kim in Seoul, Stanley White in Tokyo, Luoyan Liu in Shanghai, Joori Roh in Seoul, Abhirup Roy in Mumbai, Scott Murdoch and Alun John in Hong Kong and Orathai Sriring in Bangkok. Editing by Vidya Ranganathan and Alexander Smith

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