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Uncertain US Markets a Mixed Bag for Asia

For months, Asian investors have been wondering what would happen to share prices here if Wall Street took a big hit.

The answer would have been easy a year ago. Asian markets closely tracked the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and even moderate losses in New York usually signaled a sell-off in markets from Bangkok to Singapore.

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But Asia and Wall Street have since parted ways. Wall Street has racked up double-digit gains, while markets here slumped 40 to 60 percent since July 1997. Now some investors believe that a drop on Wall Street bodes well for Asia.

"[It] would trigger the end of the decline for Asian markets," says Delta Asia Securities' research manager, Ricky Tam.

He reasons that Wall Street gains have pulled money from Asian markets. So a sharp contraction in the United States might lure investors back to Asia.

But Mr. Tam holds the minority view.

A sharp fall in American share prices would "blow a hole" in an Asian recovery, says Nikko Securities' chief strategist, Marshall Mays, prolonging the recessions gripping Asia by at least a year.

"The last thing people want is to get back into a market perceived as more risky," adds Carlton Poon, director of Worldsec International.

The speed of any Wall Street correction is important. If it's quick, analysts say, Asia will follow.

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Equally important: the cause behind a Wall Street sell-off. If it's sparked by poor corporate earnings and signs of a slowdown in the US economy, investor sentiment and Asian economies would suffer, analysts say.

"The export engine that North America is providing would evaporate," says Mr. Mays. Exports to the US have fueled East Asian economies for 50 years.

The story changes, however, if interest-rate fears are behind a US sell-off. If that's the case, it would mean investors were concerned that the US economy was over-heating. And while that might signal a resurgence of inflation, it would also mean Americans have plenty of money to buy stereos, cars, and clothing manufactured in the Far East.

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