By Wayne Cole
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Carnage came to world markets on Friday as early voting returns suggested Britain was on the brink of leaving the European Union, threatening the existence of the entire bloc and its single currency.
Risk assets were scorched as investors fled to the safety of top-rated government debt, with FTSE futures off 6 percent and EMINI S&P 500 futures down 2.5 percent.
At one stage the British pound had collapsed no less than 10 U.S. cents, its biggest fall in living memory, while the euro slid 2 percent as investors feared for its future.
Sterling was last down a huge 5.8 percent at $1.4063, having carved out a range of $1.3969 to $1.5022. The fall was even larger than during the global financial crisis and the currency was moving one or two cents in the blink of an eye.
“Sterling is getting smackadoodled,” said Tim Kelleher, Head of FX Institutional Sales New Zealand for ASB Bank in Auckland. “While we thought it was all going to be “Remain”, it’s quite clearly not going to be as clear cut as that.”
Early official results showed the margins were nail-bitingly tight but pointing to a “Leave”. Betting firm BetFair estimated the probability of leaving as high as 74 percent.
Traders were particularly spooked by returns from Sunderland showing a large majority for the “Leave” camp and just a narrow win for “Remain” in Newcastle.
With 171 of 382 counting areas declared, the Leave camp was put at 51.3 percent against 48.7 percent for “Remain”, according to Reuters calculations.
The tremors shook all asset classes and regions.
The safe-haven yen sprang higher to stand at 103.47 per dollar, having been as low as 106.81. That dragged the Nikkei down 3 percent and prompted warnings from Japanese officials that excessive forex moves were undesirable.
MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan slid 2 percent while Shanghai stocks lost 0.5 percent.
UK bank shares listed in Hong Kong tumbled on the prospect of a destabilising exit. HSBC fell 4 percent while Standard Chartered fell 6 percent.
Financial markets have been racked for months by worries about what Brexit, or a British exit from the European Union, would mean for Europe’s stability.
Early opinion polls had favoured the “Remain” camp and perhaps led to a false sense of complacency in markets. An Ipsos MORI poll put the lead at 8 points while a YouGov poll out just after polls closed found 52 percent of respondents said they voted to remain in the EU while 48 percent voted to leave.
Safe-haven bonds came back into favour as exits bets, with U.S. 10-year Treasury futures jumping 1.18 points. Yields on the cash note fell 16 basis points to 1.58 percent.
Investors also priced in even less chance of another hike in U.S. interest rates given the Federal Reserve had cited a British exit from the EU as one reason to be cautious on tightening.
“It adds weight to the camp that the Fed would be on hold. A July (hike) is definitely off the table,” Mike Baele, managing director with the private client reserve group at U.S. Bank in Portland, Oregon.
Commodities likewise swung lower as a Brexit would be seen as a major threat to global growth. U.S. crude shed $1.64 to $48.47 a barrel in erratic trade while Brent fell $1.63 to $49.28.
Copper slipped but gold galloped higher thanks to its perceived safe haven status.
(Editing by Lincoln Feast)