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Asia: Shares slide as Swiss move heightens volatility

[TOKYO] Asian shares stumbled on Friday and the dollar skidded against the safe-haven yen, after Switzerland's unexpected move to abandon its currency cap jolted markets already roiled by plunging commodities prices.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan shed about 0.6 per cent. A resurgent yen pressured exporter shares and helped push Japan's Nikkei stock average down 2.8 per cent.

The greenback touched a fresh one-month low of 115.85 yen , and was last slightly higher on the day at 116.24 yen. "Investors will likely stay cautious against overseas developments for 2-3 weeks given weak oil prices and commodity price as well as the global economic concern," said Chisato Haganuma, chief strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities.

Brent and US crude were higher in Asian trade, up 0.3 per cent and 0.5 per cent respectively, but both remained under US$50 a barrel.

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Copper added about 0.5 per cent to US$5,657 a tonne, but was still at risk of notching its worst week since 2011.

The Swiss currency surged as much as 30 per cent to a high of 0.8500 franc per euro after the Swiss National Bank (SNB) suddenly ditched its commitment to keep its franc above 1.20 per euro. The euro took back some of its biggest one-day drop against the Swiss franc in history, and was last up 1.1 per cent on the day at 1.0023 francs.

Against the dollar, the euro slightly edged up to US$1.1637 after falling as low as US$1.15675 on Thursday, a nadir not seen since November 2003.

Investors took the SNB's move as a signal that the European Central Bank would launch large-scale bond buying next week, as many had already expected. "Volatility has been on the rise since the beginning of the year and the SNB's announcement adds to the growing list of developments that could trigger greater volatility in the financial markets," Kathy Lien, managing director at BK Asset Management in New York, said in a note, citing the ECB's Jan. 22 rate decision as well as Greek elections in the first quarter of the year.

On Wall Street overnight, stocks closed lower, marking a fifth straight session of losses as investors digested the SNB's move, disappointing bank results and the potential impact of global economic weakness on US corporate earnings.

Further undermining the dollar's attractiveness, US Treasury yields fell as investors sought the safety of fixed-income assets, with the 30-year yield touching fresh all-time lows and the benchmark 10-year yield wallowing at nearly two-year lows. The 10-year yield fell to 1.707 per cent in Asia, from its US close of 1.775 per cent on Thursday.

Spot gold traded at US$1.263.11, edging up toward its highest level in four months and on track to post its best week in nearly a year. It spiked as much as 3 per cent in the wake of the Swiss move on Thursday.