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Asian markets remain jittery amid heightened North Korea tensions

Key Points
  • Demand for safe haven assets, including the yen and Swiss franc, moderated slightly on Thursday after gaining overnight on geopolitical tensions
  • Japan core machinery orders fell for the third consecutive month
  • The Reserve Bank of New Zealand held interest rates steady

Markets in Asia remained jittery in Thursday trade, although the escalation in tensions surrounding North Korea appeared to wane slightly.

South Korea's Kospi fell 0.38 percent, or 8.92 points, to end at 2359.47, extending the last session's more than 1 percent loss, but off earlier lows.

Japan's ended down 0.05 percent, or 8.97 points, at 19,729.74.

Investors in Japan also digested the announcement of a third consecutive fall in core machinery orders for June. Core orders fell 1.9 percent, compared with a 3.7 percent rise forecast, according to Reuters. While machinery orders are regarded to be a volatile metric, they could influence market sentiment.

In Australia, the S&P/ASX 200 ended down 0.08 percent, or 4.76 points, at 5760.90 amid moderate declines in the energy and financial sub-indexes.

Hong Kong's dropped 1.13 percent, or 313.09 points, to end at 27,444.00 while mainland markets gave up early gains. The ell 0.42 percent, or 13.77 points, to 3261.80, and the Shenzhen Composite shed 0.69 percent, or 12.96 points, to end at 1872.60.

Asia-Pacific Market Indexes Chart

Demand for safe-haven assets moderated after gaining overnight in response to President Donald Trump's Tuesday warning of "fire and fury" if North Korea continued to make threats against the U.S. The hermit state responded to Trump's rhetoric by suggesting it could strike Guam.

One expert told CNBC there could be heightened risk of miscalculation over the Korean Peninsula, but market watchers suggested tensions appeared to have cooled slightly.

"Although risk aversion was felt in Europe, the toning down of language saw a recovery in the U.S. (session)," National Australia Bank economist Tapas Strickland said in a Thursday note.

While safe haven currencies remained in demand, gains made overnight softened slightly. The ceded some ground after soaring in the Wednesday session, with the greenback fetching 0.9660 Swiss franc at 4:23 p.m. HK/SIN after falling as low as 0.9629 franc overnight.

Meanwhile, the Japanese currency traded at 109.94 yen to the dollar at 4:24 p.m. HK/SIN, with the dollar marginally recovering after hitting an overnight low of 109.87 yen.

But the Korean won continued to lose ground, with the dollar fetching as much as 1,144.50 won in Asia trade on Thursday, compared with as little as 1,127 won earlier in the week. The dollar was at 1,141.85 won at 11:32 a.m. HK/SIN.

Gold prices continued to see safe-haven demand, retracing losses earlier in the session to trade at around fresh two-month highs. Spot gold prices were at $1,279.13 an ounce by 2:22 p.m. HK/SIN.

While North Korean geopolitical risks were likely to weigh on Asian markets for now, investors are expected to shift their focus to monetary policy into the end of the week, IG market strategist Jingyi Pan said in a note.

On the earnings front, shares of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing dropped 4.30 percent after it said on Wednesday that its second-quarter net profit climbed 12.5 percent to HK$1.8 billion ($230 million), higher than an average analyst forecast of HK$1.6 billion, Reuters said.

But Deutsche Bank kept a "sell" call on the stock, noting that better-than-expected results were boosted by one-off gains. It added that the stock was trading at a "very expensive" around 40 times consensus one-year forward earnings forecasts, and that its yield of 2 percent made it "unattractive" as a dividend play.

Other market movers in Hong Kong included shares of Wanda Hotel Development, which resumed trade Thursday after a one-day trading halt. Shares of Wanda Hotel jumped 19.83 percent on headlines it would be buying assets totaling 7 billion yuan ($1.05 billion) from firms controlled by Dalian Wanda Group Chairman Wang Jianlin.

Australian financial services provider AMP reported half-yearly underlying profit increased 4 percent to A$533 million ($420 million) — higher than the A$514.5 million forecast in a Reuters poll. Its net profit came in at A$445 million ($351.8 million), under the A$523 million reported last year. AMP stock tumbled 2.59 percent.

Shares of Virgin Australia jumped 5.71 percent, while shares of rival Qantas tacked on 2.47 percent.

Virgin Australia reported on Friday an underlying profit-before-tax loss of A$3.7 million for the full fiscal year, but Citi said in a note that the result was better than its expectation for a loss of A$32.2 million amid a recovery in international operations.

Citi said the results held positive implications for Qantas as it was encouraging for the strength of the domestic market.

Australian shares of organic baby food maker Bellamy's jumped 7.80 percent after it said in a stock exchange filing that China had lifted the suspension of its factory's license to export to the mainland.

In Japan, shares of Japan Display tumbled 7.69 percent to 180 yen as the market gave the company's restructuring plan, released on Wednesday, a thumbs down.

Nomura cut its target on the stock to 185 yen from 220 yen, but kept a "neutral" call.

"Business conditions for small displays have become increasingly harsh, and the company's medium-term business plan lacks anything fresh, centered as it is on fixed cost reductions," Nomura said in a note on Wednesday.

Shares of iconic cup-noodle maker Nissin Foods dropped 4.96 percent despite the company reporting net profit for the June quarter rose to 5.76 billion yen, up 92 percent on-year.

Citi said in a note that the results missed its forecasts amid higher advertising costs and a sluggish instant-noodle business in Brazil, but it kept a "buy" call and said share price weakness could be temporary.

In Hong Kong, shares of SMIC shed 6.66 percent.

Citi said in a note on Wednesday that SMIC's second-quarter net profit, down 63 percent on-year, missed its forecasts on lower utilization and less research funding from the government. It cut the stock to "neutral" from "buy."

Oil prices extended overnight gains of almost 1 percent, with Reuters citing headlines about refineries stateside processing record levels of crude. Brent crude was up 0.42 percent at $52.92 a barrel at 2:29 p.m. HK/SIN and U.S. crude was up 0.34 percent at $49.73.

The took a wild ride after the Reserve Bank of New Zealand kept interest rates steady at 1.75 percent on Thursday. Mizuho said in a morning note that while the on-hold call was expected, the central bank's stance was "less dovish than expected."

The kiwi dollar initially popped higher, rising from around $0.7330 before the announcement to as high as $0.7371 afterward, before falling back to as low as $0.7260 after Reuters reported RBNZ Governor Graeme Wheeler later said he wanted a weaker currency and indicated the central bank had intervention capability.

UOB said in a note on Thursday that Wheeler's comments were "unusually explicit for a central banker on the subject of the currency."

The New Zealand dollar was fetching $0.7274 at 2:31 p.m. HK/SIN.

The Philippine central bank kept its benchmark borrowing rate steady at 3.0 percent.

In the U.S., major indexes closed slightly lower as investors digested geopolitical tensions, with the Dow Jones industrial average slipping 0.17 percent to close at 22,048.70.