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Asia markets suffer fresh rout as Hong Kong, dollar dive


[HONG KONG] Asian markets extended their rout and the dollar hit 15-month lows against the yen Thursday after Federal Reserve boss Janet Yellen raised concerns about the global economy, essentially quashing the chances of another US rate hike any time soon.

Hong Kong led a broad sell-off across the region, while an ongoing supply glut and production splurge saw oil prices sink below US$27 a barrel.

And, highlighting the impact the slump in commodities is having, Australian mining giant Rio Tinto reported an annual net loss of US$866 million.

Dealers continued their flight to safe investments that has played out across trading floors from Asia to the Americas this week as they fret about a possible global recession.

Hong Kong stocks - closed from Monday to Wednesday for the Chinese New Year break - slumped almost four per cent to their lowest levels since June 2012. It had already lost 12 per cent by the end of trade Friday.

On the first trading day of the Year of the Monkey, selling was also stoked by concerns about riots in the city this week that saw police battle street sellers, injuring several people.

Analysts said the clashes could harm tourism.

"You can't avoid a drop because everywhere has come down so much during this time and the same concerns are still there - oil price, global recession," Steven Leung, an executive director for institutional sales at UOB Kay Hian, told Bloomberg News.

"The image of Hong Kong as a metropolitan city has been hurt quite seriously" by the riots, he said.

There were also sharp losses on most other regional markets, with Seoul closing almost three percent down and Singapore off 0.8 per cent, while Wellington also sank. However, Sydney rebounded on bargain-buying, ending one percent up.

Tokyo, Shanghai and Taipei were closed for public holidays.

In early European trade London shed 1.2 per cent, Frankfurt lost 1.4 per cent and Paris shed 1.8 per cent.

The dollar sank against the yen to levels not seen since November 2014 after Ms Yellen's testimony to Congress.

While she made no explicit comments on the Fed's plans to lift rates - after December's rise - her description of clouds looming over the US economy was taken as a hint there will be no increase in the immediate future.

Soon after she spoke the dollar fell to 113.40 yen from 115.14 yen the day before.

On Thursday it fell further, to briefly touch 112.44 yen - its weakest rate since November 2014 after the Bank of Japan's surprise decision to ramp up its vast bond-buying scheme.

The dollar also sank against most emerging market currencies, with the Australian dollar, South Korean won, Indonesian rupiah and Malaysian ringgit all enjoying healthy gains.

"Janet Yellen had a delicate task last night - to sound concerned enough to reassure investors that the Fed was feeling their pain, while still sounding upbeat enough to bolster the notion that this volatility will all blow over," Sharon Zollner, a senior economist in Auckland at ANZ Bank New Zealand Ltd, said in a client note.

"The Fed has no idea how this is going to pan out either, so all Ms Yellen could really do was ensure she wasn't the catalyst for the lurch."

Energy firms again felt the heat as oil prices continued to head south owing to the supply glut, overproduction and the prospect that demand is unlikely to pick up any time soon.

US benchmark West Texas Intermediate was 1.8 per cent down, below US$27, while Brent shed one per cent to fall below US$31. That came a day after WTI sank 1.8 per cent and Brent lost 1.7 per cent.

In Sydney after the market closed Rio unveiled its huge net loss in what the mining giant said was a "highly challenging environment" as commodity prices plunged and the Chinese slowdown hit hard. It made a US$6.53 billion net profit in the previous reporting year.