Asia stocks plunges on financial crisis panic

Asia stocks plunges on financial crisis panic

Hong Kong: Asian stocks plunged on Friday, with Japan’s Nikkei down more than 10%, while the yen and US Treasuries rose, as panic ripped through markets and investors shrugged off efforts so far to unlock credit markets.

A synchronised cut in borrowing costs by central banks around the world this week is seen as too little, too late, and investors doubt a meeting of the Group of Seven rich nations later on Friday can achieve much, with fears growing that the global economy is shifting towards recession.

US government debt and the yen have become refuges from the worsening financial crisis that overnight knocked the US S&P 500 stocks index down 7.6% to a 5-year low. But cash was ultimately king, with even Japanese government bonds being liquidated for funding.

Fears of a looming world recession that would sap demand for raw materials dragged oil prices down to a 12-month low below $84 a barrel.

“No one is buying. Fundamentals don’t matter any more and there’s no explanation for such a plunge," said Yoshinori Nagano, chief strategist at Daiwa Asset Management in Tokyo, of the selloff in Japanese stocks.

The Nikkei share average was down 10.6%, bringing the week’s losses to more than 20%.

Unlisted Yamato Life Insurance Co filed for bankruptcy protection because of market turmoil, shocking investors who had thought Asia’s financial sector, especially Japan’s, was relatively stable compared with Europe and the United States.

The MSCI index of Asia-Pacific stocks excluding Japan was down 5.7% to the lowest since June 2005, and has fallen 19% this week alone.

Singapore’s Straits Times index fell more than 7%, its seventh consecutive day of falls, after data confirmed one of Asia’s richest economies was in a recession.

The Chicago Board Options Exchange’s Volatility index (VIX), seen as a fear index, hit an all-time high of 64.92, as investors scrambled to buy increasingly expensive protection against erratic price action.

With global equity markets declining with brutal swiftness, investors have rushed to US Treasury debt despite weakness in recent days on expectations for a glut of new issuance.

The 10-year note rose 21/32 in price, taking its yield to 3.70% from 3.78%. Rates on one-month T-bills fell to just 0.045%, from 0.080 on Thursday and 1.55% as recently as 11 September, as the very short end of the market continued to act as a source of funding with other avenues all but shut down.

What More Can Be Done?

Credit markets were nearly broken. The cost of protection against defaults in Asia’s sovereign and corporate debt soared to record highs, traders said.

The iTRAXX Asia ex-Japan high-yield index, a key measure of risk aversion for the region’s “junk"-rated credit, soared about 90 basis points to a record 890/940 bps, a Singapore-based fund manager said. But traders warned of little activity in the credit markets, which tends to magnify price differences.

Extreme market volatility stoked talk that the major central banks would have to reduce interest rates again, just days after a concerted round of cuts led by the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank. There were also reports the US Treasury was under intense pressure to inject funds directly into commercial banks.

“It highlights the enormity of the issue and the problem faced by the G7," said Adam Carr, a senior economist at broker ICAP. “Given the muted response in markets, certainly I think more rate cuts are to come, as ineffective as they are proving. Lets hope the G7 propose a good dose of fiscal medicine to the real economy as well."

Whether or not global policymakers have anything more planned, time was running thin.

The spread of 3-month London interbank offered rates over the 3-month US Treasury bill yield widened to 426 bps, increasing more than 300 bps in the last month, with cash being hoarded and practically no lending between banks.

Japanese government bonds plunged as much as 1.99 points to 136.47, with investors in a frantic rush to secure cash with domestic money markets succumbing to the freeze around the world.