Markets On the Brink

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NEW YORK: Russian fears gave Wall Street another jittery ride Friday. The Dow veered wildly between a 150 point drop and a 60 point-climb, ending the day off by 114. Europe was in an ambiguous mood, too. At one point investors couldn't get their money out of stocks -- and into bonds -- fast enough. British, German and French exchanges all tumbled more than 4 percent in early trading, before word from New York helped to recoup around half those losses. Still, nobody is able to put the ruble's woes completely out of their mind. The price of gold is now the lowest it's been since 1980, as traders fearfully anticipate a flood of cheap Russian bullion. And the Swiss franc seems about the only safe currency left on the continent.

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All in all, a poor performance from the markets closest to the eye of the storm. But it's a picnic compared to the continuing collapse in Asia. The Nikkei sank to a 12-year low. Hong Kong, which had seemed immune on Thursday, plummeted on news that it had joined Japan in the recession club. The former colony's economy shrank a whopping 5 percent in the second quarter, virtually wiping out all of 1997's gains in one go; officials had originally predicted 3.5 percent growth. "This is outside of our control," whimpered Finance Minister Donald Tsang -- laying the blame at Japan's door even as his own government refused to cut spending. Only one thing could bring the global slide to a temporary halt: The weekend.