Dow drops more than 600 points, posts worst day since January as China trade war escalates

Stocks plunge as China retaliates over US tariffs — Here's what six experts say to watch now
Stocks plunge on China tariff retaliation — Here's what six experts say to watch

Stocks fell sharply on Monday after China decided to raise tariffs on some U.S. goods as the ongoing trade war between the world's largest economies intensifies.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 617.38 points, or 2.4%, to 25,324.99 and posted its worst session since Jan. 3. The  also had its worst day since early January, falling 2.4% to 2,811.87.  The Nasdaq Composite dropped 3.4% — its biggest one-day loss of the year — to 7,647.02. 

At its lows of the day, the Dow fell as much as 719.86 points while the S&P 500 and Nasdaq traded down 2.8% and 3.6%, respectively, at their session lows. The indexes came off their lows in afternoon trading after President Donald Trump said he had not decided whether to slap tariffs on an additional $325 billion in Chinese goods.

"I think this is a prelude of things to come," said Phil Blancato, CEO of Ladenburg Thalmann Asset Management. "We should expect more volatility for the foreseeable future."

To stem the downturn, "you'd have to see China really come back to the table. The rhetoric we saw this morning tells you that's not where they're at," he said.

China will hike tariffs on $60 billion worth of U.S. imports, starting on June 1. The goods targeted include a broad range of agricultural products. This comes after Trump raised tariffs on Chinese imports last week. China said in a statement that the U.S. decision jeopardized the interests of both countries and does not meet the "general expectations of the international community," according to a Google translation.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC the two countries are "still in negotiations."Trump also said the U.S. is in a "great position," in the negotiations, noting that "our economy has been very powerful; theirs has not been."

Trade bellwether Caterpillar fell 4.6% while Apple dropped 5.8%. Boeing shares declined 4.9% amid speculation the airplane maker could be singled out by China in the trade war. The utilities and real estate sectors, considered by investors to be defensive spaces in the market, were the only ones in the S&P 500 to close higher on Monday.

Asian markets fell broadly. The Nikkei 225 index declined 0.7% Monday while the Shanghai Composite pulled back 1.2%. European stocks also dropped. The Stoxx 600 index fell 1.2% while the German Dax dipped 1.5%.

"Volatility is going to persist. People don't know what to make of it," said JJ Kinahan, chief market strategist at TD Ameritrade. But "this is more of a re-evaluation of stocks than it is a pure panic. Bonds have rallied over the last couple of weeks, but if this was a panic you'd see people coming a lot more for bonds."

The benchmark 10-year Treasury yield fell to 2.39% on Monday while the 2-year rate dipped to 2.17%. The Cboe Volatility index, which is considered to be the best fear gauge in the stock market, rose 4.51 points to 20.55.

Trump tweeted on Monday that China will be "hurt very badly if you don't make a trade deal," noting that companies would be forced to leave the country without an agreement. Trump also said that China had a "great deal" almost completed but they "backed out."

Trump Tweet backed out

U.S. equities fell sharply last week after Trump threatened to hike tariffs on China. Trump followed through on his threat, raising levies from 10% to 25% on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq fell 2.2% and 3% last week, respectively, their worst weekly performances since December. The Dow had its worst week since March, dropping 2.1%.

"The market was bracing for a really big event and last week we got it," said James Masserio, head of equity derivatives trading in the Americas at Societe Generale. He noted investors had been loading up on downside protection ahead of last week's move. After Monday's news, however, we could see volatility being bid up "even higher."

UnitedHealth Group and Chevron are the only two Dow members to have posted gains since trade tensions ratcheted up last week. In that time, the two shares are up around 3%. Meanwhile, the Dow is down more than 4%.

Some of last week's losses were mitigated on Friday after stocks staged a massive comeback, however. Sentiment was boosted by Trump in a Friday afternoon Twitter post that the latest round of trade talks with China's delegation — which concluded after tariffs had already been increased — had been "candid and constructive." That turnaround did not hold up on Monday, however.

"No one wins from a trade war, although China stands to lose more," said Chen Zhao, chief global strategist at Alpine Macro, in a note to clients.

—CNBC's Spencer Kimball, Eustance Huang and Silvia Amaro contributed to this report.