Dow plunges more than 600 points as investors fear escalating trade war threatens economy

May 13 at 12:50 PM

U.S. markets plunged Monday as China said it would raise steep tariffs on $60 billion in U.S. goods, upping the stakes of a trade war that threatens to imperil the global economy.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 663 points at its low, or more than 2.5 percent, as investors feared that a trade standoff with China could escalate into a full-blown economic crisis — pulling the U.S. and world economies into recession. Dragging the Dow were Apple, Caterpillar and Boeing. The blue-chip index was headed for its lowest close since January.

The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index was down 2.5 percent and the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite fell 3.3 percent, its worst day of the year and continuing the losses from last week. Eight out of 11 market sectors were in negative territory around noon. Utilities, real estate and consumer discretionary were the only bright spots.

Both S&P and Nasdaq were on track for their worst day of the year.

“Today’s tit-for-tat in U.S./China trade tariffs has exacerbated tumbling futures out of fear that tensions could trigger a global recession,” said Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at CFRA Research.

The drama began last week after President Trump imposed a 25 percent tariff on $200 billion of Chinese imports to the United States. He also told aides to begin plans to hit more than $300 billion in other Chinese goods.

Asian markets were down more than 1 percent on China’s response, with the Shanghai Composite dropping 1.2 percent and Japan’s Nikkei 225 down just shy of 1 percent. European markets were down across the board, with the German Dax leading the drop, off 1.5 percent. France’s CAC had fallen 1.2 percent and the Pan European Stoxx 600 was off 1.2 percent.

Adding to the pressure on stocks was a Saudi news report that said two Saudi oil tankers had been attacked with “significant damage” in coastal waters near the Persian Gulf, heightening tensions with Iran.

The tankers were subjected to an “act of sabotage” early Sunday morning in waters off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, according to a statement by the Saudi Minister for Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources, Khalid Al-Falih carried by the official Saudi news agency.

Saudi Arabia did not say who was responsible for the attack, which caused no casualties or oil spill, according to the statement.

Oil futures at first rose on the news, with U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate climbing 1.6 percent and Brent crude up nearly 2 percent. Both benchmarks had reversed and their prices were on the decline by early afternoon.

“Stock investors are in risk-off mode this morning as Trump’s trade war with China seems to be escalating while negotiations seem to be breaking down,” said Ed Yardeni, president of Yardeni Research. “Adding to the geopolitical tumult is mounting tension in the Middle East following the sabotaging of Saudi oil tankers over the weekend.”

John Kilduff of Again Capital sees the Iran situation worsening.

“The situation in the Persian Gulf region is escalating rapidly,” Kilduff said. “Some of the greatest fears in the oil market are being realized with the attack over the weekend on the Saudi vessels. It is almost certain that the sabotage will be tracked back to Iran or its proxies. It’s looking like game on, sooner, rather than later.”

The president has alleged that the Chinese government is ripping off U.S. consumers and businesses by unfairly subsidizing Chinese companies, stealing intellectual property from U.S. firms, and flooding global markets with cheap goods to put other companies out of business.

On Monday, he warned China against retaliation on tariffs in a series of early morning tweets. But China countered with its own tariffs. The Chinese government said it would impose tariffs on U.S. imports starting on June 1, with steepest penalties hitting certain beef, live plants, dyed flowers, and a range of fruits and vegetables. The tariffs would range from 5 percent to 25 percent.

Technology stocks were taking a hit Monday, with all five FAANG stocks — Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google parent Alphabet — in the red.

Apple shares were off nearly 5 percent because of the risk that a China trade war would hurt Apple revenue in that country. The shares also were reacting to a Supreme Court ruling on Monday that allows iPhone users to sue the phone giant over the prices at its App Store.

Another high-profile technology company, Uber Technologies shares fell $3, more than 7 percent, Monday in its second day of trading. The ride-hailing company debuted Friday at a price of $45 per share. Shares in the company, which is the most anticipated initial public offering of the year, are 15 percent off their opening price on Friday.

Monday’s skid comes on the heels of the first weekly decline of 2019 in U.S. stocks.

The S&P 500 eked out a gain Friday on speculation the escalation won’t derail global economic growth, paring its loss for the week to 2.2 percent. That’s the steepest drop since the five days ended Dec. 21, when stocks were tumbling toward the brink of a bear market. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 2.1 percent to 25,942. Apple Inc. was among the worst decliners in the 30-member gauge as the iPhone maker’s close ties to China put its profits at particular risk. The Nasdaq Composite Index fell 3 percent.

The sell-off started Monday after Trump’s weekend tweets threatening to more than double tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods, which he then followed through on. Equities staged a late-day comeback Friday on renewed optimism that an all-out trade war can be averted.

Stocks in all 11 major industry groups ended last week lower, with technology and industrial companies sinking the most as Beijing promised to retaliate against the fresh U.S. tariffs.

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