Brexit: Asian investors in panic mode

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Currency traders watch computer monitors near the screen showing the Korea Composite Stock Price Index (KOSPI) at the foreign exchange dealing room in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, June 23, 2016.Image source, Associated Press

It wasn't supposed to be like this, one trader in Singapore told me this morning. His clients had priced in a Remain vote, and were - as he put it - pretty "complacent" about the results from the EU Referendum.

But as the results started to show a likely victory for the Brexit camp, the mood in Asia soured.

Investors are in panic mode, and clients here are telling their brokers to sell the British sterling and buy safe havens like the Japanese yen and gold.

Just after the BBC forecast a win for the Leave campaign, the sterling had fallen by more than 10% against the US dollar, touching levels not seen since 1985.

Image source, PA

In contrast the Japanese yen - a safe haven currency - soared, touching 100 yen against one unit of the US dollar.

That's bad news for Japan's economy which needs the yen to stay weak so its exports are more attractive around the world. The Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso has tried to reassure financial investors in Tokyo by saying he's watching the situation urgently and Japan will take action if needed to calm markets if necessary.

He has declined to comment on whether there's been intervention in the markets already or not.

The Japanese benchmark index, the Nikkei 225 has fallen by more than 7% so far in Friday's session, at one point triggering the circuit breaker on the Nikkei Futures index. Major Japanese companies that are heavily invested in the UK - like Nissan, Toyota Motors and Hitachi have all seen big slumps this morning.

Image source, AFP

'Sell, sell, sell'

It's the same all over Asia.

Shares sensitive to what goes on in the British economy and that are listed in London and in Hong Kong, like HSBC - at one point dropping to its lowest level in seven years - Standard Chartered Bank, Prudential and Glencore are all taking a hit as investors sell, sell, sell and pour their money into traditional safe bets like gold.

Markets in India - which is a major investor in the UK - have also fallen. The Sensex opened down by more than 900 points or 3.43% lower.

Traders say they believe that the central bank in India may step in to support the Indian rupee, which is down more than 1.5%. Big Indian firms that have exposure to the UK like Tata steel and Tata motors have also been hit.

In other Asian currencies - the Australian dollar, the Malaysian ringgit and the Korean won have all tumbled, reflecting nervousness and uncertainty about how markets around the world will react to this news.

As one market watcher in Singapore told me, the last time there was this much volatility in the markets was during the "Great Fall of China's stocks" last summer.

Markets had been pricing in a remain vote - this result is their worst nightmare.

And this is just the start: the process for the UK to leave will take at least two years to sort out. Governments in Asia will need to negotiate new trade deals with the UK, which until now has negotiated trade deals from within the EU.

The uncertainty has only just begun.