World Markets React with Caution to US Crisis

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Koji Sasahara / AP

Pedestrians walk past a stock price board in front of a indicating charts at a Tokyo brokerage house.

It could have been worse. That was the preliminary judgment in foreign markets as indices in Asia and Europe posted moderate declines — and in some cases modest growth — on Tuesday. Although Congress's rejection of the $700 bailout plan engendered some jitters on markets around the world when they opened on Tuesday. But it didn't send them reeling.

Japan's Nikkei and Hong Kong's Hang Seng indexes fell by 5% or more in overnight trading before ending Tuesday down 4.1% and .85 respectively; exchanges in London, Paris and Frankfurt all opened slumping before winding up 1.7%, .4%, and 2% ahead. Compare that with Monday's 7% drop the Dow Jones and 9.1% slide on the Nasdaq.

"The reaction was not as bad as I had feared," says Dariusz Kowalcyzk, chief investment strategist of CFC Seymour, a boutique investment bank in Hong Kong. In London, David Buik, a partner with BGC Partners, sees it similarly: "After the horrendous response we saw on Wall Street and elsewhere, I think coming in around even in Europe represents a wonderful day."

Timing made a difference between market reactions in Asia and Europe on Tuesday. While the Nikkei and Hang Seng rallied to limit losses to 4.1% and .8% respectively by the closing bell, they combined with an early 3.5% drop on Mumbai's Sensex and declines in Australia, South Korea, Singapore and the Philippines to darkened moods in Asia. By contrast, London's FTSE 100 reversed its initial dip to post a 1.7% gain for the day, while Frankfurt's DAX surged to end 0.4% up and Paris' CAC 40 finished the session a full 2% higher. Compare those with Monday closings of -5.3%, -4.2%, and -5% respectively.

Tuesday's less than catastrophic showing in Asia and Europe does not mean traders there are ignoring the potential disaster of a collapsing U.S. financial system. But there was in many foreign markets a confidence — perhaps unfounded — that U.S. legislators will eventually realize they have no choice but to pass a bill to avoid economic disaster.

"We knew this was bad news," says Song Seng Wun, regional economist at CIMB-GK Research in Singapore, who like other market-watchers believes some sort of bailout plan will get through. Unlike U.S. taxpayers, market actors in Asia aren't overly concerned about details like limiting golden parachutes extended to disgraced CEOs of bankrupt financial companies, or whether the U.S. government gets enough equity for their investment. "They just want something to be passed," notes Kowalcyzk.

European markets also seemed to anticipate a deal to bail out America's ravaged financial sector. But there was widespread irritation in Europe at American voters and their Congressional representatives airing largely ideological objections to the world's last chance to avoid unthinkable calamity.

"The ramifications of allowing the U.S. banking system to go to hell is complete anarchy — the world economy depends on it to function," argues Buik. "There's simply no other option to resolving this crisis, and the markets believe there will be an agreement, and believe that things will get better after six months to a year of real rough going."

But even if analysts outside the U.S. are confident a deal will get done in Washington, no one believes that will put an end to the current bad news. A bailout would be just the beginning of what looks to be a long and painful unwinding for Asia, for example. Even if the U.S. government can pass a plan to pump money into the financial system by buying bad mortgages — thus freeing up banks to lend money elsewhere — it won't "address the decimation of the wealth effect of the U.S. consumer," which many export-led Asian economies rely on, says Kirby Daley, senior strategist at Newedge Group, a financial services firm based in Hong Kong.

Nor can a bailout replace all the liquidity that those complicated mortgage-backed securities unleashed into the world's financial markets, making it easier for companies to borrow money to build new factories, buy new equipment or expand into new territories. "We will never return to those levels of liquidity," Daley says.

That drop in U.S. consumer spending along with the drying up of credit could well create a huge problem for Asian companies yet to be reflected in their stock prices. "We have not yet seen the impact in the corporate sector yet," says Irene Chung, a corporate director in ABN Amro's Asian markets trading business in Singapore. 'That's the scary part.' Chung expects a further decline of 20% to 30% in Asian equity markets. Not everyone is so bearish; Kowalcyzk predicts a further decline this year of 5%. But with most Asian markets already down 30%, or close to it, since January, 'It's pretty terrible already," he says.

Europe's markets are also down on the year, due primarily to effects of the U.S. financial crisis. Even more worrying than that slump continuing, however, is the exposure of European banks to toxic debt originating in the U.S. Governments are digging deep to to assure markets that they'll step in as that crisis becomes acute.

On Tuesday, France, Belgium and Luxembourg said they'd pump $9.2 billion into troubled bank Dexia after news of its U.S.-linked losses sent its share price falling 30%. That followed Sunday's announcement that Fortis, the Dutch-Belgian insurance and banking giant, had been partially nationalized through a $16.4 billion injection from the three Benelux governments, each of which will acquire a 49% stake in operations in their respective countries. In Britain, meanwhile, the government announced this week it had taken control of problem mortgages from Bradford & Bingley, Britain's second biggest mortgage lender.

Despite those moves amid the spreading U.S. crisis, however, observers believe European companies and homeowners are not as exposed to financial ruin as their American peers. "For better or worse, depending on your perspective, these aren't the same property-owning societies like you have in the U.S.,"Buik says. "The temptation, even pressure to borrow as much as you need to buy as much as you want was never the same in Europe." That relative prudence isn't likely to be enough, however, to ward off economic pain from the U.S. in the long run.

(See the ten steps to the financial meltdown here and TIME's photos of the global financial crisis here.)

(See TIME's Pictures of the Week here.)