Sydney: Asian shares fell on Thursday after strains in emerging markets returned with a vengeance and the Federal Reserve stepped back on its stimulus, sending investors scurrying to the safety of bonds and yen. Adding insult to injury, a private measure of Chinese manufacturing slipped to a six-month low for January and gave speculators a fresh excuse to target riskier assets.
While analysts emphasised that China's January data is often heavily distorted by the timing of the Lunar Year holidays, and the final factory reading was little changed from a flash estimate released last week, the drop in the HSBC PMI had an exaggerated impact in already skittish markets. Hardest hit was Japan's Nikkei which sank 2.7 per cent to the lowest since mid-November. Shanghai slipped 0.5 per cent while MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan lost 0.6 per cent.
The BSE Sensex hit lows not seen in two months, prompting the country's finance minister to pledge whatever steps were needed to maintain stability.
Markets have now shed all the gains made on Wednesday when the region had hoped that aggressive rate hikes by Turkey would shore up its currency and ease the risk of capital flight from emerging markets in general.
Investors in Europe and the United States were less impressed, however, perhaps worried about the damage higher rates might do to economic growth in these countries. The Dow ended Wednesday with losses of 1.19 per cent, while the S&P 500 shed 1.02 per cent.
Indeed, when South Africa's central bank surprised by lifting its rates half a percentage point investors reacted by dumping the rand. Likewise, Turkey's lira saw most of its initial gains stripped away. That in turn revived demand for safe havens such as the yen, Swiss franc and sovereign bonds. The U.S. dollar was stuck at 102.45, having shed a full yen overnight.
The euro also lost ground on the yen and Swiss franc, but was sidelined on the dollar at $1.3650. Bonds benefited from the general mood of risk aversion with U.S. 10-year Treasury yields at 2.69 per cent, having hit the lowest since mid-November on Wednesday at 2.66 per cent.
Fed sticks to tapering
The focus on safety was only sharpened by the Fed's well-flagged decision to trim its monthly bond buying program by a further $10 billion a month.
There had been some talk the wild swings in emerging markets might give the Fed pause for thought. Instead, Barclays economist Michael Gapen noted the Fed made no mention at all of financial markets in its statement.
"In our view, the type of volatility seen in recent weeks is insufficient to cause the committee to alter its policy stance, particularly so soon after tapering began," he added. "We expect the committee to continue reducing the pace of asset purchases by $10 Billion at each upcoming FOMC meeting through September and then take a final $15 billion reduction in October to conclude QE3."