Fears of deeper US-China trade war push Asia shares to 4-month low

Investors monitor stock price movements at a securities company in Shanghai on May 8, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Asian stocks stumbled to a four-month low on Friday (May 24) and crude oil plunged on worries the US-China trade spat was developing into a more entrenched strategic dispute between the world's two largest economies, pushing investors to safe-haven assets.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan edged down 0.2 per cent to a fresh four-month low, and was on track for a third straight weekly loss, down 1.0 per cent so far on the week.

Chinese shares recovered slightly, with the benchmark Shanghai Composite up 0.2 per cent and the blue-chip CSI 300 rising 0.3 per cent, while Hong Kong's Hang Seng added 0.2 per cent.

Japan's Nikkei average dropped 0.7 per cent.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1.1 per cent, the S&P 500 lost 1.2 per cent and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 1.6 per cent, as traders dumped cyclical names on fears that the escalating US-China trade war would stymie global economic growth.

US President Donald Trump said on Thursday that Washington's complaints against Huawei Technologies might be resolved within the framework of a US-China trade deal, while calling the Chinese telecom giant "very dangerous."

Washington last week effectively banned US firms from doing business with Huawei, the world's largest networking gear maker, citing national security concerns.

The US Commerce Department said on Thursday it was proposing a new rule to impose anti-subsidy duties on products from countries that undervalue their currencies against the dollar, another move that could slap higher tariffs on Chinese products.

China's Commerce Ministry hit back on Thursday, with its spokesman saying the United States wants to continue trade talks, they should show sincerity and correct their wrong actions."

Masanari Takada, cross-assets strategist at Nomura Securities in Tokyo, said the US-China trade conflict "has not yet fully dented the global investor sentiment, so there is no panic-selling. But at the same time, the sentiment will likely remain weak."

As flight-to-safety plays dominated global markets, the benchmark 10-year US Treasury note yield hit 2.292 per cent, the lowest level since mid-October 2017, with the key parts of the yield curve inverted. The yield last stood at 2.326 percent.

Chotaro Morita, chief fixed income strategist at SMBC Nikko Securities, said big falls shown in a fresh US manufacturing survey appear to reflect expectations of a breakdown in the U.S-China trade talks.

"In the last couple of years, the PMI has had a very small gap with hard data, such as industrial output. So if that holds true this time, we could see factory production plunging into negative levels (compared to a year ago)."

"Since the global financial crisis, US output has fallen only once: from 2015 to early 2016 when the shale industry was badly hit. Markets could start to fret over a global slowdown as they have done late last year."

The dollar index, which measures it against six major currencies, hit a high of 98.371 on Thursday US time. It was last quoted at 97.872, little changed on the day.

The euro on Thursday slumped to levels last seen in May 2017 as a recovery in euro zone business activity was weaker than expected. Early Friday, the currency was steady on the day at US$1.1181.

Sterling weakened again on Thursday as pressure mounted on British Prime Minister Theresa May to name a date for her departure after a backlash over her last-ditch plans for Britain's exit from the European Union.

While some domestic media said May's time was up, foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said she would still be prime minister when Trump arrives for a visit trip on June 3.

The pound was last traded at US$1.2661, little changed on the day. Sterling suffered its 14th consecutive day of losses against the euro on Thursday, its longest losing streak on record. It stood at 0.8831 pound to the euro .

Other major currencies were relatively calm, with the safe-haven yen still supported but not aggressively so.

The dollar was holding at 109.56 yen, almost flat on the day.

In commodity markets, oil prices tumbled on Thursday as trade tensions dampened the demand outlook, with the crude benchmarks posting their biggest daily falls in six months.

Oil prices stabilised on Friday amid OPEC supply cuts and tensions in the Middle East.

In Asian trade, US crude rebounded 0.9 per cent to US$58.46 a barrel, after Thursday's 5.7 per cent fall that took it to the lowest in two months. Brent crude futures rebounded 1.0 per cent to US$68.46 per barrel, after falling 4.6 per cent in the previous session.

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