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Asia stocks drop as 2008 wraps up

  Asia stock markets retreated for a third straight day on Tuesday as more investors locked in profits on the year-end rally and prepared to close their books on one of the worst years in decades.


The South Korean won and other regional currencies slipped, surrendering some of their gains posted this month as foreign investors have gradually warmed up to investing in riskier assets as market volatility has subsided. Trading was limited, with Japanese financial markets closed for a national holiday and many market players away from their desks before Christmas and other year-end holidays. The Shanghai Composite fell 2.2 % after China’s central bank trimmed interest rates by 27 basis points, disappointing some investors in a move that was smaller than expected given the aggressive actions by other central banks.

Last week Federal Reserve and Bank of Japan slashed rates to virtually zero in the world’s two largest economies and launched more asset-buying plans to ward off a deeper recession. The array of measures by major central banks have helped calm investors, revive some bank-to-bank lending in strained credit markets and sparked a minor stock rally into year-end. Governments have also rolled out big spending packages.

But economists at Goldman Sachs warned that the United States would need ongoing fiscal support because the usual economic recovery drivers since World War Two -- such as strong homebuilding, consumer spending on durable goods and corporate inventory restocking -- will be missing in action. “The US economy needs not only a large package of fiscal stimulus in 2009, but one that provides substantial support beyond next year,” they said in a note to clients.

The MSCI index of Asia-Pacific stocks outside Japan dropped 2 % and is down 54 % for the year, what would be by far the worst yearly slide in its 20-year history. But since hitting a five-year low in November, the MSCI index has recovered about 25 %. Evidence of the damage inflicted on the global economy continues to pile up.

New Zealand’s economy contracted by the biggest amount in eight years in the third quarter, reinforcing the case for more central bank rate cuts. On Monday, figures showed Japanese exports plunging at the fastest annual pace on record in November, while Toyota Motor Corp said it would post its first-ever annual operating loss.

The Toyota news cast a shadow over other automakers, with shares of South Korea’s Kia Motors tumbling more than 8 %. Data later in the day is expected to show Taiwan’s export orders fell 10 % in November from a year earlier, what would be the largest since 2001. A slew of US economic indicators will also be released before the holidays, including The mild risk reduction before year-end, along with worries about the global recession hurting demand next year, also hit commodity prices. US crude oil shed 45 cents to $39.46, while metal futures also fell.

The dollar was down slightly against the euro and other major currencies, with this year’s rebound petering out after being fuelled by US investor repatriations, the widespread asset deleveraging and rush to secure short-term dollar funding. The euro edged up 0.4 % from late US trade to $1.3995, off a three-month high hit last week. But against the won, the dollar climbed 2 % to near 1,335. The dollar index, a gauge of its performance against six major currencies, is still up nearly 6 % this year for what would be its biggest gain since 2005.

US Treasuries were little changed in Asia trade due to the holiday in Japan, where many bond dealers base their regional operations. The benchmark 10-year note was flat in price to yield 2.174 %, holding near a five-decade low of 2.040 % touched last week after the Fed reiterated that it was considering buying longer-term Treasuries. (Reuters)