Asian Markets Tumble on U.S. Declines, Rate Worries

Stocks across Asia tumbled to their lowest levels in months Thursday in the wake of declines on Wall Street and amid anxiety that possible U.S. interest rates hikes will slow U.S. and global growth.

Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 index tumbled 3.07 percent to 14,633.03 points, its lowest in six months.

Indian shares fell sharply for the fourth straight day, with the benchmark Sensex index plunging 4.7 percent amid talk that mutual funds were increasingly under pressure to sell.

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South Korean shares dropped to their lowest level in seven months after the Bank of Korea unexpectedly raised interest rates for the fourth time since October. Australia's stock market fell 2.35 percent, with resource and bank stocks hit the hardest.

European stocks were also lower in morning trading Thursday, with the CAC-40 index in Paris down 1.8 percent, Germany's DAX index down 1.9 percent, and London's FTSE 100 down 2 percent.

Confusion about U.S. monetary policy and doubts about U.S. growth have hammered global markets over the last month, particularly in Asia. A slump on Wall Street has made investors jittery.

Growing speculation that the U.S. Federal Reserve will raise interest rates later this month has triggered worries about a slowdown in the U.S. economy, which could undermine demand for Asian exports, especially in Japan.

"Continued selling is based on worries among investors that the Fed may raise U.S. interest rates further to rein in inflationary pressures, even if allowing for an economic slowdown," said Takashi Ushio, a strategist at Marusan Securities Co. in Tokyo.

"Until uncertainties about the U.S. interest rate policy and the outlook over the American economy will be erased to some extent, the Tokyo market's direction will remain unstable," he added.

The Japanese stock market has fallen about 9 percent this year, while Indian shares have fallen a stunning 26 percent over the last month.

Hong Kong shares also declined Thursday, with the blue-chip Hang Seng Index falling 366.44 points, or 2.32 percent, to 15,450.11.

In Taiwan, the benchmark stock index plunged 4.2 percent to its lowest level in nearly six months. Traders blamed the decline on falling stocks in other regional markets, and on political uncertainty over an opposition campaign to oust President Chen Shui-bian over alleged insider trading by his relatives.

Only three stocks rose on Taiwan's exchange, while 790 fell and 28 finished unchanged.

In South Korea, the central bank's unexpected rate hike to 4.25 percent worsened investors' already negative sentiment, contributing to a 3.5 percent drop in the Composite Stock Price Index to its lowest finish since Nov. 7.

The losses came after stocks dropped on Wall Street on Wednesday, extending investors' losses for a third straight session and pushing the Dow Jones industrial average below 11,000 for the first time since March 9.

The Dow has lost more than 316 points this week; the selloff has also wiped out the Nasdaq composite index's gains for the year and put the Standard & Poor's 500 index less than 8 points away from its Dec. 31 close.

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