Asian crisis sends shares into a dive

Market turmoil: Pound and dollar stronger as equities tumble in London and New York
A NEW BOUT of financial turmoil in Asia sent share prices tumbling in London and New York yesterday but also drove the pound and dollar higher as investors around the globe flocked to whatever safe havens they could find.

Speaking at the European Union summit in Cardiff, Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, went so far as to describe Europe and the US as "two pillars of stability" in the worst global economic crisis since the early 1980s.

The Japanese yen weakened to its lowest level against the dollar for eight years, passing the 146 level with no signs that its fall might be levelling out. Its latest nosedive started last week after comments by Robert Rubin, the US Treasury Secretary, were seen as ruling out any prospect of the G7 coming to its rescue with joint intervention.

News that Japan is in recession has sent a shiver through the rest of Asia, which depends on the region's biggest economy for its own recovery. Given their first chance to respond to confirmation on Friday that Japan's GDP is declining, markets across Asia tumbled yesterday.

In Japan, sitting uneasily at the centre of the storm, the Nikkei index fell by only 1.3 per cent, down 197 points at 14,825.17. But Hong Kong's Hang Seng index dropped nearly 6 per cent to close 453 lower at 7,462.5.

Investors and Asian governments are showing signs of impatience over the slow pace of financial reform in Japan and the cautious reflationary measures adopted by the government.

Yesterday Hong Kong's Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, on a visit to Australia, said: "At the moment, of course, the best thing to do is to persuade the Japanese government to get on with it." He was reacting to news that unemployment in Hong Kong had climbed to a 15-year high.

Elsewhere in Asia other stock markets continued their remorseless decline. The Thai market shed 5.7 per cent, Seoul hit an 11-year low with a 4.8 per cent decline, and Manila, Malaysia and Singapore all saw more than 4 per cent wiped off the value of shares.

These Far Eastern nerves infected stock markets around the globe. Although a combination of a transport strike and England's first World Cup match kept trading unusually quiet in London, the FTSE 100 index ended 54 points lower at 5,715.7. At one point it had shed 124 points, amounting to a paper loss of some pounds 22bn, in the third successive day of falling share prices.

On the other hand the pound gained two pfennigs to reach DM2.96, rising with the US currency. The sterling index against a range of currencies rose 0.8 to 105.7.

On Wall Street the Dow Jones index had fallen 134 points by mid-morning, although it later recovered to 8,765, just 70 points down.

But the safe haven status of Treasury bonds took long-term yields to a record low. The benchmark 30-year bond gained nearly a full point, its yield dipping to 5.62 per cent - the lowest since its first issue in 1977. In London, gilts futures prices reached all-time highs.

Investment analysts were sharply divided in their views about the implications of Asia's cataclysm for the western economies. Gerard Lyons of DKB in London, one of the pessimists, predicted a slowdown in the US and UK, where exporters will be hit by the loss of Asian markets. This in turn would keep shares falling, he warned.

However, Michael Hughes at ING Barings Asset Management predicted that Asia's woes would boost western markets. "Japan has been saving for the rest of the world, and those savings have to go somewhere. They are clearly not being spent in Japan," he said.

Yet economists did agree that events in Asia ruled out a rise in US interest rates for now, even though growth is still charging ahead at an extraordinary pace.

About prospects for UK interest rates there was less certainty, with the City's eyes on official earnings figures due tomorrow. A further increase in pay growth will be seen as a possible catalyst for the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee to raise the cost of borrowing once again.

Hong Kong's Mr Tung, speaking in Australia, had just been given news that one-month interbank loan rates had soared to 20 per cent, compared with their Friday close at 12.3 per cent, as investors scrambled to withdraw Hong Kong dollar deposits. Later in the day the rate eased back to around 15 per cent.