Asia Markets

Asian stocks sink as trade tensions escalate; Nikkei plunges 974 points

Key Points
  • Asian markets closed sharply lower on fears of a potential trade war.
  • President Donald Trump signed an executive memorandum that would implement tariffs on up to $60 billion in imports from China.
  • China unveiled a list of 128 U.S. products as potential retaliation targets.
  • Most steel stocks came under pressure.
  • The safe-haven yen firmed on the back of trade-related jitters in the market.

Asian markets closed sharply lower on Friday, tracking steep declines in U.S. and European stocks, which took a hit on fears of a potential trade war.

In Tokyo, the fell 4.51 percent, or 974.13 points, to close at 20,617.86 after earlier dropping to its lowest levels in more than five months. The benchmark also fell 4.88 percent for the week.

Gains in the yen, which touched its highest levels in 16-months earlier and slipped below the 105 mark, on trade-related fears also did not help stocks. Major exporters were downbeat, with Honda Motor falling 5.27 percent and Sony losing 2.73 percent.

The broader Topix lost 3.62 percent amid a broad-based sell-off. The Topix machinery and mining indexes were among the biggest losers, falling 5.62 percent and 4.45 percent, respectively.

Meanwhile, Seoul's benchmark Kospi index lost 3.18 percent to close at 2,416.76, as shares fell broadly. Technology names fell sharply, with heavyweight Samsung Electronics sinking 3.98 percent and SK Hynix losing 6.21 percent.

Greater China markets plunged in early trade, with Hong Kong's sinking 3.16 percent by 3:00 p.m. HK/SIN. Beyond trade tensions, the market was also weighed down by a 4.55 percent slide by 3:10 p.m. HK/SIN in index heavyweight Tencent due to a major shareholder's plan to sell its stake in the tech company.

Stocks on the mainland also came under pressure from mounting trade tensions. The dropped 3.38 percent to close at 3,153.09 and the Shenzhen composite lost 4.49 percent to end at 1,766.61.

In Sydney, the S&P/ASX 200 slid 1.96 percent to finish at 5,820.70 as all sectors closed in the red. Declines were led by the materials subindex, which lost 2.68 percent. Oil producers were also weaker.

Meanwhile, most steel and aluminum plays in the region took a beating. In China, Baoshan Iron & Steel closed down 3.87 percent, and Aluminum Corp of China (Chalco) fell 3.51 percent.

South Korean steel stocks also saw steep losses, with Posco falling 5.58 percent by the end of the day. Dongbu Steel, a smaller player, pared early gains to close down 6.09 percent. South Korea is one of the countries temporarily exempt from recent U.S. steel tariffs.

Trade jitters spook markets

The moves in Asia came on the back of U.S. and European stocks falling overnight after President Donald Trump signed a memorandum that would implement tariffs on up to $60 billion in imports from China.

The tariffs largely focus on technology sector goods and were intended to penalize China for, according to the Trump administration, stealing intellectual property.

Trump had signed off on tariffs on steel and aluminum imports earlier this month, although several countries were exempt. Markets are worried that subsequent retaliatory actions from U.S. trading partners could result in a trade war.

In response, China on Friday proposed a list of 128 U.S. products as potential retaliation targets, according to a government statement.

The fact that Trump's "announcement was a proposal rather than an action on trade indicates this may be used as a negotiating tactic," Diana Mousina, senior economist at Sydney-based AMP Capital said in a morning note.

Still, others worried that the tougher talk on trade could potentially lead to more significant consequences.

"[T]he real risk is that this escalates into tit-for-tat trade wars," Vishnu Varathan, head of economics and strategy at Mizuho Bank, said in a note.

— CNBC's Kevin Breuninger, Kayla Tausche and Nyshka Chandran contributed to this report.