Global markets shuddered Thursday as investors began to take seriously the prospect of a trade war between the world’s two largest economies.
Stocks in the United States fell for a second straight day, as President Donald Trump imposed $60 billion worth of annual tariffs on Chinese imports and investors’ concerns about the growing trade tensions mounted.
After wobbling throughout the day, the S&P’s 500 index turned decisively lower in the last hour of trading, closing down by 2.5 percent. That put the index into negative territory for the year.
Large exporters, whose fortunes could be harmed by a trade war, were hit especially hard. Shares of Boeing, one of the country’s largest exporters, fell 5.2 percent, and Caterpillar, which counts China as an important market, dropped 5.7 percent. The drop knocked Boeing from its spot as the best performer in the Dow Jones industrial average, which it enjoyed last year and through February of 2018 — but it remains up 7.7 percent this year.
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The specter of a trade war also battered shares of large technology companies, which already have been reeling in anticipation of tougher government oversight for some: Facebook slumped by more than 2 percent, and Google dropped by more than 3.7 percent. Amazon.com was down 2.3 percent, while Microsoft fell 2.9 percent.
For Boeing, “There is a real element of unknown around this,” said Ken Herbert, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity. “There is no way to spin this as positive. The question is whether this is a bigger issue potentially, or a minor speed bump.”
The planemaker would suffer if trade tensions spill over into the global economy and damage air-travel growth.
“Our fear on a recession is that it could potentially come from a trade war triggered by U.S. tariffs,” Douglas Harned, an analyst at Bernstein, said in a March 16 report.
That’s a bigger risk than tit-for-tat retaliation by China against Trump, Harned said.
China is expected to take about 20 percent of commercial jets built by Boeing and Airbus in the next few years, he said. But with both plane makers sold out of their narrowbody jets through the early 2020s, there is little risk of China canceling its Boeing orders because Airbus wouldn’t be able to shoulder the load alone.
“China needs the airplanes and Airbus is already stretched on capacity,” he said. “We could see a one-time long-term order move to Airbus as a message to the U.S., but we would not attach much significance to it as we expect balance over the long term.”
Another Seattle company with a major stake in China is Starbucks. Executive chairman Howard Schultz said at Wednesday’s annual meeting that “China is going to be largest market in the world for Starbucks.”
In its largest acquisition, Starbucks bought out its partner in an East China joint venture for $1.4 billion in January, and now it has some 3,200 stores in China, including one of its flagship Reserve Roasteries, which opened in Shanghai late last year. Starbucks China employs 45,000 people.
If Starbucks is concerned about trade-war fallout stunting its growth in China, executives haven’t said so. To the contrary, Schultz cited Starbucks’ commercial success in China, its “relationship of trust and confidence with the government and our standing in the country” as “the crowning achievement of the entire company over the last almost 50 years.”
Starbucks shares dropped 0.5 percent Thursday.
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