Asian shares slide to six-week low amid worry about tariffs

Sydney — Asian shares fell to six-week lows on Thursday as tensions rose ahead of last-ditch US-China trade talks that could sharply alter the direction of the global economy.

Investors were on tenterhooks as they waited to see if Chinese vice premier Liu He can salvage a trade deal during two days of negotiations in Washington on Thursday and Friday, after US officials said Beijing had backtracked on earlier commitments.

An agreement could avert a sharp increase in US tariffs on Chinese goods that President Donald Trump has threatened to impose on Friday, which Beijing has threatened to retaliate against in what would be major escalations in the countries’ bruising trade war.

“If Trump’s threat becomes reality, it will be a game changer for the global economy. This is the worst-case scenario we modelled last year that resulted in recession conditions in the United States, a rapid reduction of growth in China, and slower global trade,” said Steve Cochrane, chief Asia-Pacific economist at Moody’s Analytics in Singapore.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan dropped 1% to its lowest level since March 28.

Stocks extended earlier losses in Asian trade after Trump told a rally of supporters that China “broke the deal” and would be paying for it.

Chinese shares tumbled further and were a hair away from two-and-a-half-month lows marked on Wednesday. The benchmark Shanghai Composite slid 1.1% and the blue-chip CSI 300 fell 1.5%. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng was down 1.6%.

Japan’s Nikkei average shed 1.2% to a five-week low, while South Korea’s Kospi fell 1.1% and the Australian benchmark added 0.4%.

Trump has threatened to raise tariffs to 25% from 10% on $200bn worth of Chinese imports at 4.01am GMT on Friday. Beijing has vowed to retaliate, without giving details.

Kazuhiko Fuji, senior fellow at RIETI, a Japanese government affiliated think-tank, said the talks are looking fragile.

“I would suspect the US will just hand China an ultimatum. No wonder the US yield curve is almost inverting again,” he said.

The yield spread between three-month bills and the 10-year notes shrank to three basis points, compared with about 15 basis points a few weeks ago.

The closely watched spread turned negative in late March, spooking investors, who read the development as portending a future recession.

The benchmark 10-year Treasury yield stood at 2.464%, having hit its lowest level in five weeks of 2.426% on Wednesday.

Wall Street shares ended a choppy session flat to lower overnight, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average rising marginally, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq Composite dropping 0.2% and 0.3%, respectively.

In the currency market, sterling weakened on signs that Brexit talks between Britain’s government and the main opposition party may soon collapse.

The pound fell below the psychologically key $1.30 level, touching a six-day low overnight, and last traded at $1.301.

The dollar index against a basket of six major peers was flat at 97.619, with other major currencies also confined to well-trodden ranges. The euro was little changed at $1.1188 and the Japanese yen edged up 0.2% against the greenback to 109.93 yen.

In the commodity market, oil prices dropped on Thursday amid concerns over the escalating Sino-US trade battle, despite a surprise fall in US crude stockpiles.

Brent crude futures dropped 0.9% to $69.75 a barrel, while US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude also retreated 0.9% to $61.58 per barrel.

Shanghai industrial metals fell in early trade on Thursday, while benchmark London copper hit its lowest in nearly three months, as investors sought safety ahead of the trade talks.