Asian markets track Wall Street losses

Tokyo's Nikkei average was off 2.7 percent in early afternoon trading.
Asian markets slumped Friday, latching onto Wall Street’s bear market slide to levels not seen since 1997.

Tokyo’s Nikkei average was off 3.5 percent in afternoon trading and the All Ordinaries index in Australia tumbled 1.2 percent. In Seoul, the KOSPI fell 0.3 percent, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index dropped 1.3 percent. On Wall Street, stocks plunged to fresh 12-year lows Thursday as investors waded through another day of grim news. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 281 points, or 4.1 percent, to close at 6,594.44, ending at the lowest point since April 15, 1997. The Dow has now fallen 14 of the past 18 sessions. The Nasdaq composite fell 54 points, or 4 percent, to close at 1,299.59, ending at the lowest point since 1279.24 on March 12, 2003, at the bottom of the previous bear market. The Standard and Poor’s 500 index lost 30 points, or 4.2 percent, closing at 682.55, the lowest finish since Sept. 18, 1996. Stocks slipped at the open and kept falling from there, with the selling accelerating as the major gauges failed to hang on to key technical levels that traders watch.

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“Once we broke through that 700 level on the S&P, which has been intact since 1996, all the people who were watching it left the building,” said Joe Clark, market analyst at Financial Enhancement Group. He said that with the major gauges at these levels, market pros have even less of a sense of where the so-called bottom is. Stocks have been sliding on and off since peaking in October 2007 amid the housing and credit market collapse and the onset of the recession, which technically began in December 2007. But the declines have picked up the pace year-to-date in response to growing pessimism about the economy. As of Thursday’s close, the Dow is down almost 25 percent this year, the worst start in the 113-year history of the Dow. Since closing at a record 14,164.53 on Oct. 9, 2007, the Dow has fallen 53 percent as of Thursday’s close. Since closing at a record 1,565.15 on Oct. 9, 2007, the S&P 500 has fallen 56 percent as of Thursday’s close. Since hitting a bull-market high of 2,859.12 on Oct. 31, 2007, the Nasdaq has tumbled 54.5 percent as of Thursday’s close. But the Nasdaq has never come near its record of 5,048.62, hit on March 10, 2000, at the apex of the Internet boom. Stocks managed to snap back from 12-year lows Wednesday on hopes that China would announce that it was increasing the size of its stimulus plan. But the Chinese premier did not announce any boost to the $586 billion plan at a key political meeting in Beijing on Thursday. Concerns about the outlook for General Motors also weighed on stocks Thursday. GM said in its annual filing that there is substantial doubt about the automaker’s ability to survive. The company has sustained huge losses over the course of the recession and has already received $13.4 billion in federal loans. GM has said it needs more federal money to stay afloat. GM shares fell 15.5 percent. The world’s No. 1 retailer reported a bigger-than-expected jump in February sales, thanks in part to lower gas prices. Wal-Mart said that sales at stores open a year or more, a retail metric known as same-store sales, rose 5.1 percent in February versus forecasts for a rise of 2.4 percent. Nonetheless, many retailers continued to see weaker sales because of the slowing economy and growing joblessness. Wal-Mart rival Target said sales fell 4.1 percent, sending shares 3.1 percent lower.

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment fell to 639,000 last week from 670,000 in the previous week, versus economists’ forecasts for a drop to 650,000. In global trading, European markets tumbled.