Shaky Stimulus Spurns Asians Stocks

HONG KONG  — Asian stock markets dropped Wednesday, following a steep sell-off on Wall Street, as investors reacted with skepticism to the U.S. government's latest plan to rescue the ailing financial industry with as much as $2 trillion in commitments.

Hong Kong's benchmark tumbled over 3 percent, while stock measures in South Korea and India fell more than 0.5 percent. Further weighing on the region were figures showing China's exports plunged 17.5 percent in January — the sharpest drop in more than a decade — amid the global slowdown.

As in the U.S., investors across Asia questioned whether America's revamped bailout program, unveiled Tuesday by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, would be enough to absorb the bad assets saddling bank balance sheets and free up the credit markets that govern lending to consumers and businesses.

Geithner said the plan to get trillions of dollars in financing flowing through the world's largest economy was urgently needed as part of the government's effort to stave off "catastrophic failure" of institutions. A centerpiece involves the government teaming with the private sector to buy up to $1 trillion in souring assets from financial firms. A separate lending program would be expanded to as much as $1 trillion from $200 billion for consumers and businesses.

Investors, however, complained about what they viewed as a lack of detail.

Garry Evans, a chief Asian equity strategist with HSBC in Hong Kong, called the plan "muddled." He said the government was skirting around what many investors have already concluded: that the U.S. may have to nationalize the banks for a period.

"People are not convinced that this plan is what it is needed," Evans said.

"They (U.S. officials) have still philosophically backed away from the ultimate conclusion, which is the government will have to take over financial institutions," he said. "Philosophically that's quite hard for the U.S. government to admit, but the history of banking crises shows that is what governments usually do."

Not even the colossal amounts of money announced in the U.S. are likely to make up the funding shortfall created by risky loans and other distressed assets the banks are holding, said Paul Schulte, a chief Asia equity strategist at Nomura International in Hong Kong.

The financial hole could be as big as $4 trillion and U.S. officials have yet to fully explain the scope of the problem, he said.

"The problem is much larger than people thought and the solutions to this much larger problem are still not coherent," Schulte said. "The plan is absolutely a step in the right direction, but we have like 45 more steps to go."

In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng tumbled 442.89 points, or 3.2 percent, to 13,437.75, while South Korea's Kospi lost 7.2 points, or 0.6 percent, to 1,191.75. Japanese markets were closed for a public holiday.

In mainland China, Shanghai's main stock measure gained 0.8 percent.

Elsewhere, Australia's benchmark fell 0.4 percent, Singapore's stock measures shed 0.3 percent and India's index lost 1.2 percent.

Asia's retreat was tame compared to Wall Street's. U.S. markets plunged overnight as investors soured on the financial rescue and seemed to ignore the Senate's approval of its $838 billion economic stimulus package.

The Dow industrials fell 381.99, or 4.62 percent, to 7,888.88. Broader stock indicators also tumbled, with the Standard & Poor's 500 index down 42.73, or 4.91 percent, to 827.16. It was the biggest drop for the index since the Obama inauguration on Jan. 20.

Wall Street futures were up modestly, suggesting U.S. markets could recover some at the open. Dow futures were up 32, or 0.4 percent, at 7,910 and S&P500 futures rose 2.8, or 0.3 percent, to 829.70.

Asian financials, like those in the U.S., took a bruising.

KB Financial Group Inc., the holding company for top South Korean lender Kookmin Bank, tumbled 3.7 percent. Leading Australian investment bank Macquarie Group Ltd. dropped 1.9 percent. And European heavyweight HSBC Holdings shed 4.8 percent in Hong Kong.

In oil, light sweet crude for March delivery rose 63 cents to $38.18 a barrel in Asian trade. The contract fell $2.01 to settle at $37.55 overnight.

In currencies, the dollar was little changed at 90.28 yen compared to 90.43 yen, while euro traded at $1.2896, down from $1.3903.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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