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Libya Rattles Global Markets; Oil Prices Spike to Over $90

Fears that Libya is heading toward deepening chaos hit stocks Monday and pushed oil prices sharply higher.

With reports suggesting that over 200 people have been killed in clashes across the country, which have spread to the capital Tripoli, investors are getting increasingly worried about the escalating violence in one of Africa's biggest oil producers.

Supporters of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi hold his pictures as they take part in a pro-government rally in Tripoli on February 17, 2011 as the country faced a nationwide "Day of Anger" called by opposition cyber activists.
Mahmud Turkia | AFP | Getty Images
Supporters of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi hold his pictures as they take part in a pro-government rally in Tripoli on February 17, 2011 as the country faced a nationwide "Day of Anger" called by opposition cyber activists.

Those concerns were heightened by a statement from Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the son of Libya's longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Blaming everyone from drug addicts to the media for the current turmoil afflicting Libya, he warned that civil war was a real possibility and that his father would fight until "the last bullet." Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, which have already seen popular uprisings that deposed longtime leaders, Libya is a member of producer cartel OPEC and has a direct impact on global oil production.

The country is one of the world's biggest oil producers, accounting for around 2 percent of global daily output, and has the biggest proven oil reserves in Africa.

Already three leading oil companies, Italy's ENI, Norway's Statoil and Britain's BP, have already said they are pulling some employees out of Libya or preparing to do so.

"Libya is the first major oil exporter to be engulfed by the crisis and the first to see significant disruption to oil production," said Julian Jessop, chief international economist at Capital Economics.

Unsurprisingly, the main impact was in the oil markets.

Benchmark crude for March delivery was up $4.13, or 4.8 percent, at $90.13 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange, while Brent crude in London spiked $2.35 a barrel, or 2.3 percent, to $104.84, having earlier struck a two and a half year high above $105.

Rising oil prices are a particular worry for investors as they reinforce fears over inflation and raw materials costs. They also stoke fears of a big drop in global demand levels, as evidenced in previous oil price shocks in 1973-4, 1979 and 2008.

Given that unappetizing backdrop, investors' appetite for risk in other markets fell sharply.

When risk appetite is low, investors usually look for shelter in the perceived safe havens of the U.S. dollar and gold at the expense of more risky investments such as stocks.

"Political risk is hanging over a big proportion of the world's oil supplies," said Simon Derrick, an analyst at Bank of New York Mellon. "I can see safe haven buying the natural outcome of all this."

European shares fell. Germany's DAX index closed down 105 points, or 1.4 percent, at 7,321.81 while the CAC-40 in Paris fell 59.73 points, or 1.4 percent, to 4,097.41.

The FTSE 100 index of leading British shares ended 68.19 points, or 1.1 percent, at 6,014.80.

Markets in the U.S. will be closed Monday for the President's Day holiday.

In the currency markets, the euro fell 0.1 percent to $1.3671, while the dollar was unchanged at 83.17 yen.

Among commodities, an ounce of gold spiked over $17 to $1,406.

The unrest in Libya dominated European markets and deflected attention from positive economic data and a heavy defeat for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party at a state election.

Lee Hardman, a currency economist at the Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi-UFJ said the defeat could prove to be a significant development should it set a precedent going forward.

The next two upcoming state elections are on March 27, two days before a crucial summit of EU leaders.

"Should the CDU party continue to lose national support ahead it could damage its ability to deal effectively with the eurozone debt crisis," Hardman said.

Earlier in Asia, investors also had their first chance to respond to Friday's decision by the monetary authorities in China to increase the amount banks hold in reserve.

The 0.5 percent increase was announced after Asian markets had closed. Mainland Chinese shares shrugged off the central bank's move. The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index gained 1.1 percent to 2,932.25. The Shenzhen Composite Index gained 1.9 percent to 1,297.66.

Elsewhere, Japan's Nikkei 225 stock average rose 0.1 percent to 10,857.53 with the index enjoying a six-day winning streak to close at a 10-month high.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng index lost 0.4 percent to 23,508.62, while South Korea's Kospi fell 0.4 percent to 2,005.30 and Australia's S&P/ASX 200 shed 0.7 percent to 4,900.