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Asian stock markets sink as global growth fears spread

Investors rush to yen and bonds, driving Japan yields deep into negative territory

A screen in Tokyo shows the falling Nikkei Stock Average on March 25. (Photo by Shihoko Nakaoka)

TOKYO -- Asian stock markets started the week sharply weaker, as investor fears about global growth returned with a vengeance following poor economic data out of Europe.

The Nikkei Stock Average ended Monday's session down 3% at 20,977.11. It was the biggest loss so far this year and the first close below 21,000 since Feb. 15.

As of 3 p.m. Japan time, Hong Kong's Hang Seng index was down 1.8%, South Korea's Kospi index was off by 1.9% and the Shanghai composite index was down 1%.

Investors flocked to safe-haven bonds in Asia, just like their U.S. and European counterparts. Japanese 10-year bond yields dropped to -0.095% at one point, the lowest in 31 months. The decline came as 10-year German bond yields fell below zero for the first time since 2016 on Friday, while U.S. yields slipped to the lowest level since the beginning of 2018.

The falling bond yields hit financial institutions hard, since they will make investment more difficult. Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group was down 3% while HSBC and DBS were off more than 1%.

In the foreign exchange market, the safe-haven yen was bought against the dollar, sending the yen-per-dollar rate below 110 to the strongest level in more than a month.

The latest catalyst came from Europe, where the eurozone's key manufacturing gauge sank to a six-year low of 47.7 in March from 49.7 in February. Heightened political uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the U.S.-China trade war took a toll, economists at Moody's Economy.com said.

The eurozone manufacturing index suggests sluggish growth in the first quarter and even more weakness in the second quarter, according to Economy.com. The eurozone economy grew at an annualized rate of 0.9% in the October-December period.

In Asia, export-led growth is rapidly losing momentum. Chinese exports plunged 20.7% from a year earlier in February, while in South Korea, shipments fell 11.1%.

The U.S. economy until last year showed resilience amid the global slowdown, but it too has been losing steam since the beginning of 2019. First-quarter growth is projected by Economy.com at 1.1%, compared with 2.6% for the October-December term.

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