Stocks have changed direction again and again this week as investors tried to get a sense of whether a trade dispute between the two nations will escalate.

Specialists Robert Tuccillo, left, and Matthew Greiner work at their post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Friday, April 6, 2018. Another increase in trade tensions has stocks reversing course and falling again.
Specialists Robert Tuccillo, left, and Matthew Greiner work at their post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Friday, April 6, 2018. Another increase in trade tensions has stocks reversing course and falling again. (AP)

Another increase in trade tensions has stocks falling sharply Friday as the US considers an even larger set of tariffs on imports from China and the two countries exchange pointed statements. Technology companies and banks are taking some of the worst losses.

Stocks have changed direction again and again this week as investors tried to get a sense of whether a trade dispute between the two nations will escalate, an outcome that could have major consequences for the global economy. The market didn't get any help from a March jobs report that was weaker than expected.

The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 581 points, or 2.4 percent, to 23,916 as of 2:15 pm Eastern time. Earlier it fell as much as 620 points.

The S&P 500, which many index funds track, lost 53 points, or 2 percent, to 2,608. The Nasdaq composite slid 135 points, or 1.9 percent, to 6,940. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks dipped 29 points, or 1.9 percent, to 1,513.

Dramatic swing

The Dow average, which contains numerous multinational companies including industrial powerhouses Boeing and Caterpillar, has swung dramatically this week, with about 1,300 points separating its highest and lowest marks. It fell as much as 758 points on Monday, then recovered all of those losses, and late Thursday it was up as much as 519 points for the week. It's down 0.7 percent for the week.

The administration spent the past few days reassuring investors that it's not rushing into a trade war, and China's government has done the same. But late Thursday, President Donald Trump ordered the US trade representative to consider placing tariffs on $100 billion in duties on Chinese imports. China said it would "counterattack with great strength" if that happens.

Stocks dipped further after Trump criticised the World Trade Organization on Twitter Friday morning.

At the start of the week, the US announced plans to put tariffs on $50 billion in goods imported from China, and the Chinese government responded with measures of equal size. Stocks plunged on Monday, but they rallied over the next few days as officials from both countries said they were open to talks and that the tariffs might never go into effect.

With administration officials sounding conciliatory one day and more hostile the next and the president always quick to fire off another tweet, investors simply don't know what the US wants to achieve, said Katie Nixon, chief investment officer for Northern Trust Wealth Management.

"The process itself seems to be quite chaotic," she said. "We're not quite sure what the long term strategy is."

Creating uncertainty

Still, she said businesses support the idea of making changes in America's trade relationship with China. But even though investors are optimistic about the state of the global economy and company profits continue to grow, Nixon said the administration is creating the thing investors hate the most: uncertainty.

Technology companies make a lot of their sales in Asia and they have struggled as Wall Street worries about a slowdown in global economic growth. Optimism about the world economy has helped many tech companies make huge gains in the last year.

Apple skidded $3.46, or 2 percent, to $169.34 and Cisco Systems declined 98 cents, or 2.4 percent, to $40.84. PayPal dipped $2.63, or 3.4 percent, to $74.32.

Industrial companies might face the worst pain from tariffs, as they could find themselves dealing with higher costs for components imported into the US while the duties on their goods in China harm their sales.

Caterpillar, a construction equipment maker, shed $584, or 3.9 percent, to $142.29 while farm equipment company Deere sank $5.56, or 3.7 percent, to $145.79. Aerospace giant Boeing dipped $12.20, or 3.6 percent, to $324.20.

Health care companies also declined. Johnson & Johnson sank $2.99, or 2.3 percent, to $127.72 and health insurer UnitedHealth dropped $59, or 2.6 percent, to $223.18.

Employers added 103,000 jobs in March, which is weaker than the last few months. The Labor Department also said fewer jobs were added in January and February than it initially estimated. The unemployment rate remained low, and the job market looks fundamentally healthy, but it's possible some employers are struggling to find workers.

Crude drops

Benchmark US crude dropped $1.17, or 1.8 percent, to $62.37 a barrel in New York, while Brent crude, used to price international oils, lost 92 cents, or 1.3 percent, to $67.41 per barrel in London. Oil prices have also been volatile this week, as investors wonder if an increase in trade tensions will reduce demand for oil by slowing down the global economy.

Bond prices rose, sending yields lower. The yield on the 10-year Treasury fell to 2.78 percent from 2.83 percent. The lower yields mean banks can't make as much money from lending, and that sends bank stocks lower. JPMorgan Chase fell $3.23, or 2.9 percent, to $108.65 and BB&T lost $1.89, or 3.6 percent, to $51.

Gold rose $7.60 to $1,336.10 an ounce. Silver edged up 1 cent to $16.36 an ounce. Copper fell 2 cents to $3.06 a pound.

The dollar fell to 106.86 yen from 107.12 yen. The euro rose to $1.2287 from $1.2256.

Germany's DAX was down 0.5 percent while France's CAC-40 fell 0.3 percent lower. The FTSE 100 in Britain lost 0.2 percent.

Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 index dipped 0.4 percent while South Korea's Kospi slipped 0.3 percent but Hong Kong's Hang Seng rose 1.1 percent after trading resumed following a holiday as investors caught up with the previous day's global gains.

Source: AP