Japan stocks dive after Europe, U.S. sell-off

TOKYO -- Japan's main stock index dived Friday, leading other Asian markets lower, after a sell-off in banking shares roiled investors in the U.S.

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and Europe.

Tokyo's Nikkei 225 was down 4.8 per cent to 14,952.61 after earlier sinking as much as 5.3 per cent. Hong Kong's Hang Seng fell 1.0 per cent to 18,364.14. South Korea's Kospi gave up 1.4 per cent to 1,835.01 and Australia's S&P/ASX 200 fell 1.2 per cent to 4,765.30. Shares in New Zealand and Southeast Asia also fell. Markets in China and Taiwan are closed until Monday for Lunar New Year holidays.

Global stocks have been in a slump since the beginning of the year when China's market, which had been propped up by government buying, plunged dramatically. Concerns about China, however, are now just one of several factors behind the bloodletting.

Investors recognize that prices rose too high during several years of artificial support from the ultra-easy monetary policies of central banks that were trying to foster economic recovery following the 2009 global recession. A crunch moment has arrived as global economic growth wanes again and the Federal Reserve signals it is still committed to raising U.S. interest rates from record lows.

The latest turmoil has centred on the stocks of banks, whose profits are threatened by slowing growth and the slump in oil prices.

"The slump in share markets is increasingly looking to be feeding on itself as investors fret that financial turmoil will bring on a recession and cause big problems for banks which in turn drives more selling of shares," Shane Oliver of AMP Capital said in a market commentary.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen voiced confidence in the U.S. economy in testimony to Congress on Thursday, but acknowledged risks, saying it was too early to tell whether they are severe enough to alter the central bank's interest rate policies.

That failed to reassure investors hoping the Fed would signal that rate hikes are off the table for this year, with financial companies taking the biggest hit.

In Tokyo, Japan's Mitsubishi UFG Financial Group fell 2.2 per cent and Mizuho Financial Group Inc. sank 3.7 per cent.

Japanese shares were also weighed down by a surge in the yen's value to 110.99 yen against the dollar, though that gain had largely evaporated by the time trading began in Asia on Friday. A stronger yen will hurt the profits of Japanese exporters, whose planning has been premised on a much weaker level of about 118 yen to the dollar, analysts say.

U.S. shares recovered somewhat from sharp losses on Thursday, but the Dow Jones industrial average still closed down 254.56 points, or 1.6 per cent, to 15,660.18. The Standard & Poor's 500 lost 22.78 points, or 1.2 per cent, to 1,829.08 and the Nasdaq composite fell 16.76 points, or 0.4 per cent, to 4,266.84.

In currency trading, the dollar fell to 112.09 yen from 112.29 the previous day. The euro fell to $1.1307 from $1.1315.

Benchmark U.S. crude was up $1.27 to $27.47 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract tumbled to $26.21 in New York on Thursday, its lowest level since May 2003, as investors fled to the traditional havens of bonds and precious metals. Gold jumped 4.5 per cent.

Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils, gained $1.36 to $31.42 a barrel in London. It dropped 78 cents, or 2.5 per cent, to $30.06 on Thursday.



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