AUSTRALIAN stocks fell to a two-week low as poor data out of Asia and the growing prospect of a recession in Europe sent investors running for cover.
Stocks closed lower for the fifth day out of six after more dismal news from Europe overnight saw Italian bond yields rise to a euro-era record, triggering a sharp sell-off in commodities as investors rushed to the perceived safe haven of the dollar.
Data showing that China's manufacturing sector continued to contract in December as exports slowed compounded fears that the euro zone debt crisis is already slowing growth in Asia.
"There is a feeling that there is nowhere to hide at the moment," CMC Markets sales trader Ben Taylor said.
"The once safe haven of gold has been hijacked in US dollar strength, US bonds give you little to no real return and equity markets are quickly losing their appeal."
At the close today, the benchmark S&P/ASX200 index was down 50.7 points, or 1.2 per cent, at 4,139.8, while the broader All Ordinaries index lost 52 points, also 1.2 per cent, to 4,197.8.
On the ASX 24, the March 2012 share price index futures contract fell 48 points or 1.2 per cent to 4,116, with 37,911 contracts traded.
The December share price index futures contract, which expired at midday, fell 26 points to 4,153.
Miners and energy stocks led the market lower as the resource-heavy ASX became the worst performing index in the region.
Gold miners were the worst performers, shedding 3.8 per cent as the yellow metal lost its shine.
Newcrest Mining lost 2.9 per cent to $30.88 while BHP Billiton was down 64 cents, or 1.8 per cent, at $35.06, while Rio Tinto shed $1.76 to hit $61.40.
"The colossal falls in gold over the past few days have broken several support levels on the way down," said IG Market's market analyst Stan Shamu.
"If we see a break lower...the assumption could be that the gold super-cycle is over."
The price of gold in Sydney was at $US1,567 by 1651 AEST, down $US72.83 from Wednesday's local close of $US72.83.
Banks suffered too after ratings agency Fitch downgraded major French banks Credit Agricole and Rabobank on the back of escalating problems in Europe, along with France's Banque Federative du Credit Mutuel Denmark's Danske Bank and Finland's OP Pohjola Group.
On the local stage, National Australia Bank chairman Michael Chaney joined Westpac this week by warning that Europe's debt crisis is pushing up the costs of funding for banks and the problem is far from over.
The comments, which are expected to be echoed on Friday by ANZ, came as NAB closed down 38 cents, or 1.6 per cent, at $23.48.
Westpac was down 34 cents at $20.46, Commonwealth Bank was down 75 cents at $48.63 and ANZ was down 19 cents at $20.78.
BlueScope Steel says retail shareholders took up less than half of the new shares available under a $600 million capital raising share offer.
The stock last traded at 43.5 cents before going into a trading halt today.