SYDNEY — Asian share markets were scorched on Tuesday as concern about stability put a torch to European bank stocks and sent investors stampeding to only the safest of safe-haven assets.

As fear overwhelmed greed, yields on longer-term Japanese bonds hit zero for the first time ever, the yen surged to a 15-month peak and gold reached its most precious since June.

Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso felt moved enough to warn the yen’s rise was "rough", something of an understatement as the Nikkei average nose-dived 4.9%. MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan fell 1%, and would have been lower if not for holidays in many centres.

"Sentiment towards risk assets remained extremely bearish and price action reflected a market that may be capitulating," ANZ senior economist Jo Masters said.

All of which magnified the stakes for Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen’s testimony this week.

"She needs to come across as optimistic without being too hawkish and cautious without being negative," said Ms Masters.

"Hawkishness or dovishness could easily exacerbate the current sell-off, tightening financial conditions further."

Wall Street did pare its losses but still ended deep in the red. The Dow lost 1.1%, while the S&P 500 fell 1.42% and the Nasdaq 1.82%. The rout began in Europe where the FTSEurofirst 300 index shed 3.4% to its lowest since late 2013, led by a near 6% dive in the banking sector.

Deutsche Bank alone sank 9.5% as concern mounted about its ability to maintain bond payments. Late on Monday, the German bank said it had "sufficient" reserves to make due payments this year on AT1 securities.

The cost of insuring bank debt against default also climbed to its highest since late 2013. Borrowing costs in Spain, Portugal and Italy jumped as investors demanded a fatter risk premium over safer German paper, where two-year yields hit record lows at minus 52 basis points.

Fear factor

"The ‘fear factor’ in markets has morphed from being about an emerging-market hard-landing and collapsing oil prices to being about the extent of the slowdown in the developed world and the ability of central banks to reflate asset values yet again," Citi analysts said in a note.

The Bank of Japan’s (BoJ’s) recent shift to negative rates has fuelled the concern that ever-more exotic monetary policy is rapidly reaching the point of diminishing returns.

Yet murmurings about the risk of recession in the US has also led investors to wager the Federal Reserve will have to slow, or suspend altogether, plans to normalise rates.

Futures markets have priced out any chance of a hike in March and imply a funds rate of just 0.45% by December. The current effective funds rate is 0.38%. That has pulled down 10-year treasury yields to their lowest since early 2015 at 1.70% and undermined bullish bets on the US dollar.

It touched a six-week trough on the Swiss franc, while the euro edged up to $1.1217. Against a basket of currencies, the dollar eased 0.1% to 96.485.

By far the biggest mover was the yen, long considered a safe-haven given Japan’s position as the world’s top creditor nation. The dollar dived to ¥114.65, having been above ¥121 just a week ago, while the euro fell to ¥128.68.

With more and more sovereign bonds paying negative rates, the relative cost of holding gold has seemed less and less of a burden. The metal reached its strongest since June at $1,200.60/oz, to last trade at $1,193.60.

Oil prices bounced slightly after three sessions of losses.

Brent futures added 37c to $33.25 a barrel, while US crude rose 51c at $30.19.

Reuters