A statue of a bull is displayed outside the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. File Picture: REUTERS/BOBBY YIP
A statue of a bull is displayed outside the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. File Picture: REUTERS/BOBBY YIP

Singapore — Asian equity markets extended a global slide on Friday as tension ramped up between the US and North Korea, sending investors fleeing to less risky assets such the yen and the Swiss franc.

Wall Street closed sharply lower after US President Donald Trump issued a new round of fiery rhetoric, warning Pyongyang against attacking Guam or US allies after it disclosed plans to fire missiles over Japan to land near the US Pacific territory.

The sell-off is likely to extend into the European session, with financial spread-better CMC Markets expecting Germany’s DAX and France’s CAC 40 to open down about 0.7% each and Britain’s FTSE 100 to start 0.55% lower.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan skidded 1.55%, its biggest one-day loss since mid-December. It is heading for a 2.5% drop for the week.

Japanese markets were closed for a holiday.

Many markets have recently climbed to record or multiyear highs, leaving them vulnerable to a sell-off.

"What has changed this time is that the scary threats and war of words between the US and North Korea have intensified to the point that markets can’t ignore it," said Shane Oliver, head of investment strategy at AMP Capital in Sydney.

"Of course, it’s all come at a time when share markets are due for a correction so North Korea has provided a perfect trigger."

South Korea’s Kospi fell 1.8% to an 11-and-a-half-week low, taking its losses this week to 3.2%. The Korean won also continued to skid, down 0.45% to 1,147.2, falling below its 200-day moving average for the first time in a month.

Australian shares were down 1.3%, set for a weekly loss of 0.6%. Chinese blue chips lost 1.6%, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng was 1.9% lower.

If North Korea were to launch an attack that threatened the US, China should stay neutral, but if the US attacked first and tried to overthrow North Korea’s government, China would stop them, a Chinese state-run newspaper said on Friday.

"This situation is beginning to develop into this generation’s Cuban Missile crisis moment," ING’s chief Asia economist Robert Carnell wrote in a note.

"While the US president insists on ramping up the war of words, there is a decreasing chance of any diplomatic solution," Carnell said.

Trump’s threat earlier this week, to unleash "fire and fury" on Pyongyang if it attacked, was ultimately dismissed as bluster by many investors.

Trump’s second warning, however, has shaken markets that have been largely resilient this year, swatting away a slew of risks. These have ranged from an investigation into Russia’s possible interference in the 2016 US presidential election, to concern about China’s risky debt levels, to stubbornly low inflation in the US.

The CBOE Volatility index, the most widely followed barometer of expected near-term US stock market volatility, rose the most in about 12 weeks. The index closed at its highest level since November 8, when Trump was elected president.

The Chinese volatility gauge jumped by the most since January 2016 to its highest level in more than seven months.

The MSCI World index slipped 0.15%, extending Thursday’s 1.1% drop, its biggest one-day slide since May 17.

The dollar widened losses against the yen to hit a two-month low. It was down 0.2% at ¥108.98, after retreating 0.7% on Thursday.

The yen is perceived as a safe haven because Japan is the world’s biggest creditor country and investors there have tended to repatriate funds in times of crisis.

But "the yen may be expected to lose its safe-haven status if US-North Korean tensions continue to escalate", leaving the Swiss Franc, and possibly the US dollar, as the remaining beneficiaries of risk aversion, Emmanuel Ng, currency strategist at OCBC Bank in Singapore, wrote in a note.

For now, the dollar remained on the back foot, pulling back 0.1% to Sf0.9635 on Friday, after dropping as much as 1.2% to a two-week low overnight.

Disappointing US inflation and jobs data have not helped the dollar.

US producer prices unexpectedly recorded their biggest drop in nearly a year, and the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week.

Markets are now awaiting US consumer price data for July, due later in the session.

Spot gold prices were little changed at $1,286.05/oz, after touching a two-month high earlier. They have soared more than 2% in the previous two sessions, and are set for a weekly gain of 2.25%. Crude futures extended losses on the fear of slowing demand and lingering concern over a global oversupply.

US crude was down 0.9% at $48.16 a barrel, on track for a weekly loss of 2.9%. Global benchmark Brent also lost 0.9% to $51.44, after Thursday’s 1.5% drop. It is poised to end the week down 1.9%.

Reuters

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