Asian stock markets battered on blowback of intensifying global trade war

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SYDNEY: Fears of a full-blown trade war between the United States and China battered Asian shares again on Monday, keeping the safe haven yen near a 16-month peak as investors fretted over the fate of global growth.

But E-Mini futures for the S&P 500 leapt 0.6 percent, an unusual move during early Asian hours, after the Wall Street Journal reported the United States and China have quietly started negotiating to improve U.S. access to Chinese markets.

The news was little consolation for Asian shares which were left nursing their wounds.

Japan’s Nikkei was down 0.6 percent after falling to a near six-month trough at open. Chinese shares declined about 1 percent in early trade.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan slipped 0.2 percent for its fourth consecutive day in the red.

The index is headed for its first quarterly decline since late 2016 as the risk of faster U.S. rate rises and the specter of a trade war spooked investors who had enjoyed a multi-year bull run.

South Korea’s benchmark share index was the lone bright spot, up 0.1 percent on reports the United States and South Korea were on the verge of a trade deal, including an exemption from U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs for South Korea.

The Korean won KWR was also firmer after hitting a near one-month trough on the U.S. dollar last week.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed a memorandum on Friday that could impose tariffs on up to $60 billion of imports from China, although the measures have a 30-day consultation period before they take effect.

The tariffs are on top of additional duties on steel and aluminum on several countries including China, which has already hit back with its own plans to slap duties on up to $3 billion of U.S. imports.

U.S. shares were also clobbered last week, with the Dow falling 1.8 percent on Friday, the S&P 500 declining 2.1 percent and the Nasdaq off 2.4 percent.

IN SEARCH OF SAFETY

In the uncertain global economic climate, investors looked to pile into the Japanese yen, traditionally a safe haven asset thanks to the country’s massive current account surplus.

Speculators added short dollar bets to their portfolios, taking the net short position to its highest in more than a year, according to calculations by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission for the week to March 20. Short yen positions were cut to the smallest since November 2016.

The yen held at 104.90 after last week going below 105 for the first time since November 2016. The euro, another perceived haven for nervous investors, was up 0.1 percent at $1.2367.

The dollar index tracking the greenback against six other major currencies, was near a one-month low at 89.423.

In commodities, international Brent crude futures opened above $70 per barrel for the first time since January. Prices were lifted by expectations that OPEC-leader Saudi Arabia may extend supply cuts into 2019, as well as concerns that the United States may re-introduce sanctions against Iran.

Spot gold was flat at $1,346.71 an ounce.

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