Markets slump amid euro uncertainty

Nikkei indexPA

Asian stock markets have slumped amid new signs of pressure on Europe's banking system and a downturn on Wall Street.

Benchmark oil lingered above 99 US dollars per barrel while the dollar rose against the euro but fell against the yen.

Japan's Nikkei 225 index fell 0.7% to 8,362.33. South Korea's Kospi lost 0.1% to 1,823.44 and Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index was 0.9% lower at 18,348.95. Benchmarks in Singapore, Taiwan and Indonesia were also lower, while Malaysia and the Philippines rose and mainland China was mostly flat.

Overall, stock markets were quieter than normal as many traders go on holiday the week between Christmas and New Year's.

Investor sentiment waned hours after the European Central Bank said banks had parked 590.72 billion US dollars with it overnight, surpassing the record set only on Monday. That means European banks were less willing to take the risk of making short-term loans to each other, opting instead to earn low interest rates from the ECB.

The move shook confidence in the euro currency, which yesterday dropped to 1.2910 US dollars - its lowest level against the dollar in nearly a year - before recovering slightly.

"As we have seen time and time again throughout 2011, when EUR/USD falls, so does equities, and so does gold, with traders buying into fixed income assets," Chris Weston of IG Markets in Melbourne wrote in a research note.

Even successful bond auctions in Italy failed to lift the euro against the dollar. Demand for Italian bonds was strong, and the country was able to pay lower interest rates.

That is a sign that investors are more confident about Italy's ability to repay its debt. The country recently passed a big package of budget-cutting measures.

The yen's rise to a 10-year high against the euro put stress on Japan's exporters. Kyodo News agency said the euro briefly fell to 100.35 yen in Tokyo, its lowest level against the Japanese currency since June 2001.
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