BANGKOK – Asian markets were sharply lower Monday amid signs of U.S. economic sluggishness and escalating worries about Europe's debt crisis after Italy and Greece were slapped with credit downgrades.
Oil prices fell below $99 a barrel as a stronger U.S. dollar made commodities more expensive for investors with other currencies.
Signs of a worldwide slowdown in economic growth, manifested in slumping markets and rising inflation rates, are also cooling investor sentiment, according to Linus Yip, a strategist at First Shanghai Securities in Hong Kong.
Markets are going through "a global correction" because of slowing growth in China, the contraction of Japan's economy and Europe's debt problems.
"Money is just not willing to go into the market," Yip said. "Investors are expecting the market to go lower."
Japan's Nikkei 225 slid 1.6 percent to 9,456.29 and South Korea's Kospi tumbled 2.3 percent to 2,062.77. Hong Kong's Hang Seng shed 1.7 percent to 22,798.28.
Shares of Japanese auto maker Honda Motor Corp. were down 1.6 percent as the company announced its workers would take 14 days off this summer because of production interruptions caused by parts shortages. The work days will be made up later in the year.
Operations at Honda, like scores of other Japanese manufactures, have been severely hindered after an earthquake and tsunami on March 11 struck Japan's industrial northeast. The region, largely wiped out, was home to hundreds of companies that manufacture parts for the country's powerhouse manufacturing industry.
A weakening yen didn't help Japan's export sector much. Canon Ltd. lost 1.6 percent, Panasonic was down 0.9 percent, and Hitachi Ltd. lost 2.2 percent.
Virtually no sector nor any country escaped punishment. Chinese blue chip property developer China Resources Land Ltd., listed in Hong Kong, dropped 3.1 percent. Heavy equipment makers tumbled, including Japan's Komatsu Ltd., down 6.8 percent, and Korea's Hyundai Heavy Industries Co. Ltd., slid 6.7 percent. China Garments Co. Ltd. was down 5.6 percent.
Shares of most major airlines also weakened. Korean Air Lines Co. Ltd. lost 3.7 percent while Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. dropped 2.2 percent.
In Europe, Standard & Poors cut its ratings outlook for Italy's debt from stable to negative Saturday, citing the country's poor growth prospects and concerns about the government's ability to reduce public borrowing. But with its rating still A+, Italy remains in far better shape than Greece.
Credit ratings agency Fitch cut Greece's long-term credit rating further into junk status on Friday, saying the indebted country faces challenges changing its economy to reduce debt. Investors remain concerned that Greece will have to stretch out its debt repayments or pay creditors less than what they're owed. Europe's banks, especially those in Greece, hold lots of Greek bonds, and a restructuring could hurt them.
In New York on Friday, stocks closed broadly lower for a third straight week on signs that U.S. consumer demand may be weakening.
Retailers Gap Inc. and Aeropostale Inc. each lost more than 14 percent Friday after cutting their profit forecasts for the year, in part because of higher costs for raw materials and sluggish sales. That was a worrying sign for investors who had counted shoppers to lead a recovery in spending.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 0.7 percent to 12,512.04. The Standard & Poor's 500 index lost 0.8 percent to 1,333.27. The Nasdaq composite dropped 0.7 percent to 2,803.32.
Benchmark crude for June delivery was down $1.14 to $98.96 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The euro dropped against the greenback to $1.4073 from $1.4201 in late trading in New York on Friday. The dollar strengthened to 81.90 yen from 81.57 yen.