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Stock markets fall across the board as trade war fears lead to weekly losses

North American markets headed lower on Friday afternoon, failing to bounce back from steep losses this week as concerns about the start of a potential trade war and the risk of the U.S. government shutting down put a cap on overall gains.

China, the world’s second largest economy, responded to U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan on Thursday to put tariffs on up to $60 billion of Chinese goods by announcing plans of its own to hit up to $3 billion of U.S. imports with tariffs.

But the Asian giant also urged the U.S. to “pull back from the brink” in order to avoid a trade war.

“China doesn’t hope to be in a trade war, but is not afraid of engaging in one,” China’s commerce ministry said in a statement. “China hopes the United States will pull back from the brink, make prudent decisions, and avoid dragging bilateral trade relations to a dangerous place.”

Then in another surprise move, Trump threatened to veto the new $1.3 trillion spending bill passed by Congress — increasing the possibility of a government shutdown ahead of Friday’s deadline to keep the federal agencies open.

Markets ‘more affected’

Andrew Kenningham, chief global economist at research firm Capital Economics said that while the economic impact of the tariffs announced by Trump will be small even if they are implemented in full, the “protectionist announcements and actions may continue to weigh on investor sentiment.” 

“In short, markets will be more affected than the economy,” he said. “At face value, the tariffs on China would cover less than three per cent of total U.S. goods imports, similar to those on steel and aluminum.

“We think the biggest fallout will continue to be for equity markets. Markets which are likely to be among the worst affected include those which are reliant on supply chains linked to China, notably Taiwan, as well as companies which could be hit by Chinese retaliation,” he added.

Asian markets had closed sharply lower on Friday, with the region’s biggest market — Japan’s Nikkei 225 index — plunging 4.5 per cent, while Hong Kong’s Heng Seng fell 2.5 per cent. Mainland Chinese shares tumbled with the benchmark Shanghai Composite losing 3.4 per cent.

“Global equity market sentiment remains downbeat as U.S. tariffs aimed at China have flared tensions between the two nations and prodded concerns of a broader escalation,” said Carl Campus, economist at BMO Capital Markets in a note.

In New York, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 0.1 per cent or 33 points to 23,925, while the broader S&P 500 index lost 0.6 per cent to 2,629.

The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite was down 0.6 per cent to 7,121 points.

Shares of chip stocks weighed on the benchmark index led by Micron Technology, which fell over six per cent after Citigroup downgraded the chipmaker on falling digital component prices.

Inflation heats up

Canadian shares, meanwhile, fell after economic data showed that inflation rose to the fastest pace in three years, putting pressure on the consumer staples sector, which fell one per cent.

Consumer prices went up at an annual pace of 2.2 per cent in February due to increases in energy prices. That is the highest level since 2014.

The S&P/TSX Composite Index lost 0.5 per cent to 15,321, but healthcare stocks were the big gainers led by marijuana companies.

Shares of the country’s largest marijuana producer — Canopy Growth — jumped nearly seven per cent after the government moved closer to legalizing recreational use by this summer. 

Investors fleeing to the safety of gold, which was trading at its highest in a month, also boosted material stocks, with Barrick Gold up nearly three per cent.

The Canadian dollar was also higher on the inflation data, trading at 77.82 cents US, up from an average price of 77.47 cents on Thursday.


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