HONG KONG: Asian markets mostly fell on Monday as growing fears of a conflict between Ukraine and Russia sent traders scurrying for safer assets, with the yen surging and oil prices also seeing huge gains.
The downbeat atmosphere was compounded by another disappointing set of manufacturing figures from China that added to concerns about growth in the world’s number two economy.
Tokyo tumbled 1.75 percent by the break, Hong Kong slipped 0.56 percent, Sydney shed 0.50 percent, and Seoul was 1.00 percent lower but Shanghai was up 0.59 percent.
The long-running political crisis in Ukraine took a serious turn Saturday when lawmakers in Moscow voted to allow President Vladimir Putin to send troops into Crimea, a predominantly Russian-speaking peninsula in the southeast of the ex-Soviet state.
In what has become the most serious crisis since the end of the Cold War, global leaders condemned the move as Ukraine’s new Western-backed prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk,warned: “We are on the brink of a disaster.”
US President Barack Obama branded the move a “violation of Ukrainian sovereignty,” while Secretary of State John Kerry warned Moscow faced being kicked out of the Group of Eight economic grouping if it did not step back.
Atsushi Hirano, head of FX sales Japan at Royal Bank of Scotland, told Dow Jones Newswires: “Tensions have risen with the United States. Stocks are likely to be negatively affected.”
The tensions sent investors scurrying to the yen, which is considered a safe bet in times of political and economic uncertainty. In early trade the dollar was at 101.27 yen, compared with 101.76 yen in New York City on Friday afternoon, while the euro fetched 139.61 yen against with 140.44 yen.
The euro also bought $1.3773 against $1.3800. With Russia also a huge supplier of oil to European nations, the price of both main crude contracts also spiked.
New York’s main contract, West Texas Intermediate for April delivery, rose $1.60 to $104.19, while Brent North Sea crude for April was up $1.85 cents at $110.92.
There were also renewed worries about the health of China’s economy after Beijing said its official purchasing managers’ index (PMI) of manufacturing activity fell to an eight-month low of 50.2 last month.
The figure represents the third straight drop following a reading of 50.5 in January, 51.0 in December and 51.4 in November.
A figure above 50 indicates expansion while one below shows contraction. However, officials stressed that the result was skewed by the Chinese New Year holidays at the start of the month.
China’s economic growth has weakened in recent years, hitting 7.7 percent in 2013, the lowest level since 1999. Analysts expect a further drop to 7.5 percent this year.
The events in Europe overshadowed a strong lead from Wall Street, where the Dow rose 0.30 percent and the S&P 500 tacked on 0.28 percent to a new record high. The Nasdaq, however, ended 0.25 percent lower.
The broad advance came despite the Commerce Department saying US gross domestic product growth in the final quarter of 2013 came in at 2.4 percent, compared with its initial estimate of a 3.2 percent expansion.