Stock markets plunged Wednesday on concerns that newly re-elected President Barack Obama will struggle to agree on a budget deal with a divided Congress and as Europe's economic outlook darkened further.
The ease with which Obama secured four more years in the White House — avoiding the uncertainty of ballot recounts, as in 2000 — had buoyed markets early in the day. But as the day wore on, investors grew concerned over the implications of a still divided Congress.
Though the Democrats maintained the presidency and their majority in the Senate, the Republicans remain in command in the House of Representatives. That could lead to a logjam in policymaking, not least over the parlous state of the country's public finances.
The most pressing matter facing the U.S. government is the so-called "fiscal cliff" — a combination of higher taxes and government spending cuts that automatically take effect unless Congress agrees on a new budget by Jan. 1. Economists warn that a failure to reach a concrete decision will push the world's largest economy back into recession.
"The initially favorable reaction has evaporated with the ugly task of dealing with the fiscal cliff eclipsing earlier optimism," said Andrew Wilkinson, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak & Co.
U.S. stocks opened lower and kept falling throughout the morning in New York. The Dow Jones industrial average was down 2.5 percent at 12,918.23 and the broader S&P 500 index off the same rate at 1,392.99.
In Europe, the FTSE 100 index of leading British shares dropped 1.6 percent to close at 5,791.63 while Germany's DAX fell 2 percent to 7,232.83. The CAC-40 in France dropped 2 percent to 3,409.59.
Sentiment has also been hit by a downbeat set of European economic forecasts from the European Commission. The executive arm of the European Union now expects the 17-country eurozone to contract by 0.4 percent this year and to grow by only 0.1 percent next year.
Figures showing that Germany, Europe's largest economy, saw industrial production in September fell by 1.8 percent, worse than market expectations for minus 0.6 percent, also hurt sentiment.
The turnaround in stocks markets was evident in currencies, too— when risk appetite wanes, the dollar usually finds support. By late afternoon London time, the euro was 0.4 percent lower at $1.2762, a full cent lower than where it had been trading earlier.
Investors are also turning their attention toward a crucial vote in the Greek Parliament later in the day. If lawmakers don't back a €13.5 billion ($17.3 billion) package of spending cuts and tax increases, the country faces the prospect of losing access to its bailout lifeline and potentially defaulting on its mountain of debt and leaving the euro.
That toxic combination could have massive negative repercussions in financial markets, regardless of whether a bipartisan budget solution is reached in the U.S. in the coming weeks.
"Strange to think that over 100 million votes cast in the U.S. may have less impact upon the markets over the next month or so than some 300 votes due to be cast in the Greek parliament this evening," said Gary Jenkins, managing director of Swordfish Research.
Earlier in Asia, Japan's Nikkei 225 index closed marginally lower at 8,972.89. Hong Kong's Hang Seng added 0.7 percent to 22,099.85. South Korea's Kospi gained 0.5 percent to 1,937.55.
Mainland Chinese shares edged lower, with Shanghai Composite Index slipping marginally to 2,105.73. The smaller Shenzhen Composite Index lost 0.2 percent to 851.64
Also on investors' radar is Thursday's opening of China's Communist Party congress — the once-in-a-decade forum to name China's top leadership. Although current Vice President Xi Jinping is almost certain to be China's next leader, markets will be looking for hints on how the new leadership plans to tackle the nation's economic slowdown.
In the oil markets, the price for the benchmark contract of crude was down $3.57 to $85.14 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
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