Trade war jitters

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

HONG KONG — Asian markets mostly reversed early losses Wednesday but investors remain nervous as the possibility of a US-EU trade war shifted into focus after Washington’s tariffs threat, while they were also spooked by Brexit uncertainty.

The warning from US President Donald Trump’s administration that it would impose levies on more than $11 billion of European imports jolted investors, who had been enjoying a positive run of late thanks to optimism over China-US trade talks.

The development — linked to EU subsidies to planemaker Airbus that Trump says hurt US giant Boeing — stoked concerns about the White House’s hardline protectionist agenda that has taken aim at its biggest trading partners since the tycoon’s election.

It also comes despite negotiators holding a series of meetings since last year ahead of proposed trade talks to resolve the dispute.

“The primary market issues are that this could unwind much of the positivity around a comprehensive trade resolution as the US trade hawks continue to apply pressure on longtime allies,” said Stephen Innes at SPI Asset Management.

“Friend or foe, the latest headline suggests no country is exempt from the wrath of President Trump’s trade agenda.”

The move could dent a rally that has seen markets across the globe enjoy a blockbuster start to the year with most up at multi-month highs.

All three main Wall Street indexes ended lower Tuesday and while the losses seeped through to Asia in the morning the region’s markets picked up as the day wore on.

Hong Kong shed 0.2 percent in late trade and Tokyo ended off 0.5 percent, while there were also losses in Wellington and Jakarta.

However, Shanghai ended up 0.1 percent, Seoul rose 0.5 percent and Singapore gained 0.1 percent with Sydney, Taipei, Manila and Bangkok also in the ascendance.

In early trade London rose 0.1 percent, while Frankfurt and Paris each gained 0.2 percent.

‘Poison the well’

Upheaval in world trade was among the major reasons the International Monetary Fund trimmed its 2019 global growth forecast, with Brexit adding to its worries.

Prime Minister Theresa May will on Wednesday hear at a showdown summit the EU’s decision on her request for an extension to Britain’s exit, which is due Friday, and to avoid an economically calamitous no-deal divorce.

While she has asked for a delay until the end of June, EU heads fear that will not be enough and Council President Donald Tusk has suggested up to a year to find a new way around the crisis.

Observers broadly expect a deal to eventually be made, though US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said a “hard Brexit” remained possible, adding that authorities were preparing for such an eventuality.

The pound continued to hold its own, rising on the prospect of a delay to Brexit.

However, Michael Hewson, chief market analyst at CMC Markets UK, warned a extension “will inevitably mean that the UK will have to take part in European elections, which is unlikely to be well received by a lot of people, and could well poison the well of UK politics even more than it already is”.

Oil prices edged up as Russian President Vladimir Putin left open the possibility of extending a production cut agreed with OPEC.

“We’ll coordinate with OPEC and take a decision depending on the market situation” when the producers meet in June, he said.

The commodity has enjoyed a bumper 2019 thanks to US-China optimism, sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, a weaker dollar and the recent unrest in Libya.