The growing street protests in Egypt sent stocks down Friday and gave the dollar a lift against the euro as investors fret about what could happen over the weekend.
With Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak imposing a night curfew and the military ordered out onto the streets, the tensions across the Arab world's most populous state remain high.
Following the upheavals that saw Tunisia's longtime president flee the country Jan. 14., nerves are frayed about how the uprising in Egypt will end and which regional government could be next to face the wrath of its people.
There's nothing like uncertainty to get investors fidgety especially as the weekend approaches when trades are hanging for longer. Uncertainty can breed a flight out of riskier assets into supposedly safer ones. For now the losers tend to be stocks and the euro, the winners the dollar, the yen and gold.
Simon Derrick, a senior analyst at Bank of New York Mellon, said investors are aware that in a crisis, events can move faster than anticipated.
"This was true, for example, in September and October of 2008 in the aftermath of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and it was true in April and May of last year during the height of the Greek crisis," Derrick said. "It therefore appears sensible to note quite how swiftly the Tunisian revolt built and equally, how rapidly street protests emerged in the cities of Egypt."
Fitch Ratings lowered the outlook for the country's credit rating to negative and warned of a possible downgrade to the credit rating itself if the unrest intensifies. Richard Fox, the head of the Middle East and Africa desk at Fitch said the move to a negative outlook was due to the "recent upsurge in political protests and the uncertainty this adds to the political and economic outlook ahead of September's elections."
By late-afternoon London time, the euro, buoyant of late on hopes that Europe is finally getting a handle on its debt crisis, was down 0.7 percent at $1.3630.
In stocks, the Dow Jones industrial average was down 114 points, or 1 percent, at 11,877 around midday New York time, while the broader Standard & Poor's 500 dropped around 12 points, or 0.9 percent to 11,287.
In Europe, Germany's DAX closed down 52.78 points, or 0.7 percent, to 7,102.80 while the CAC-40 in France fell 57.25 points, or 1.4 percent, to 4,002.32. The FTSE 100 index of leading British shares ended 83.71 points, or 1.4 percent, lower at 5,881.37.
With one eye, at least, on Egypt at least, the reaction to U.S. growth figures was underwhelming.
The Commerce Department reported that the U.S. economy grew by an annualized rate of 3.2 percent in the fourth quarter. That was up on the previous quarter's 2.6 percent rate but below market expectations for a 3.5 percent increase.
Analysts said the shortfall from expectations was due to a big swing in inventory buildup from $121 billion in the third quarter to just $7.2 billion in the fourth.
Other components in the growth figures were relatively buoyant, particularly consumption growth.
"The U.S. economy bounced back in Q4, and that's good news no matter how you slice it," said Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMP Capital Markets. "It's not a boom time but it is becoming more self-sustaining."
The fourth quarter figures also confirmed that the U.S. economy enjoyed its best year in five in 2010, growing by 2.9 percent.
And the U.S. is also widely expected to be one of the fastest-growing major economies in 2011 given ongoing stimulus measures, which stand in contrast to the austerity measures being pursued elsewhere around the world, notably in Britain and in a number of countries that use the euro.
Earlier, markets in Asia were rattled by the previous day's credit rating downgrade of Japan by Standard & Poor's. The rating given Japan on Thursday _ its first downgrade in almost nine years _ is the same rating given to China, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The news sent the dollar as high as 83.18 yen late Thursday from 82.20 yen. On Friday it was trading at 82.63.
Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average dropped 1.1 percent to close at 10,360.34 as traders reacted to the downgrade for the first time _ markets had closed when S&P delivered its verdict. The dollar gave up its previous day's gains though, trading 0.6 percent lower at 82.34 yen.
Elsewhere, Australia's S&P/ASX 200 closed down 0.7 percent at 4,774.90 as the first estimates of the economic cost of east coast flooding _ possibly the most expensive natural disaster in Australia's history _ were released.
South Korea's Kospi declined 0.3 percent to 2,107.87 and Hong Kong's Hang Seng fell 0.7 percent to 23,617.02. Shares in Indonesia and Thailand were all lower.
China's Shanghai Composite index gained 0.1 percent to 2,752.75. Benchmarks in Taiwan and New Zealand were also higher.
Benchmark crude for March delivery rose $1.93 to $87.57 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange, while an ounce of gold advanced $6.70 to $1,325.10.
Carlo Piovano in London and Pamela Sampson in Bangkok contributed to this report.