World stock markets hit by investor fears about China economy, Ukraine tensions

HONG KONG – Most global stock markets fell sharply Friday over persistent concerns about weakness in the Chinese economy and tensions in Ukraine.

Japanese stocks ended the week down about 6 per cent as investors seeking safety piled into the yen ahead of a high-stakes weekend vote on the future of Ukraine’s Crimean region that has strained relations between Russian and the West to the breaking point.

European stocks opened lower, with Germany’s DAX dropping 0.7 per cent to 8,960.04. France’s CAC 40 sank 0.4 per cent to 4,232.36. Britain’s FTSE 100 shed 0.2 per cent to 6,537.50.

U.S. stocks were poised for a slight rebound a day after the Dow Jones industrial average suffered its worst day in six weeks. Dow futures were up 0.1 per cent to 16,055.00 and broader S&P futures edged 0.1 per cent higher to 1842.20.

Investors are retreating from risky investments such as stocks ahead of a referendum in Crimea on Sunday to decide whether to break away from Ukraine and become part of Russia.

“Risk aversion is likely to deepen at the end of the week and at the beginning of next week,” strategists at Credit Agricole CIB wrote in a research note.

Worries lingered that the world’s No. 2 economy is entering a deeper slowdown. The concerns were heightened after data released Thursday showed Chinese industrial production and retail sales grew slower than analysts expected. At the same time, Premier Li Keqiang signalled that China’s leaders are “not preoccupied” with hitting the official 7.5 per cent economic growth target.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 tumbled 3.3 per cent to close at 14,327.66 and is down 6.2 per cent for the week as investors sought haven in yen, sending its value higher. A stronger yen makes goods sold by the country’s exporters pricier for overseas buyers. The dollar has lost about 1.4 per cent against the yen in the past week and was trading at 101.71 Japanese yen, down from 102.74 yen late Thursday.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng dropped 1 per cent to end at 21,539.49 and China’s Shanghai Composite fell 0.5 per cent to 2,004.34. South Korea’s Kospi slipped 0.8 per cent to 1,919.90.

Stocks in Australia, where the resource-led economy and currency have been highly dependent on China’s fortunes, dropped sharply, with the S&P/ASX 200 sinking 1.5 per cent to 5,329.40.

Mining and resource companies were among the hardest hit on the Australian bourse, with Rio Tinto losing 2.5 per cent and BHP Billiton shedding 2 per cent.

“Cyclical names were already going to be on the back foot due to Ukraine concerns but China data just exacerbated the situation,” said Stan Shamu, market strategist at IG Markets in Melbourne.

The euro rose to $1.3875 from $1.3863.

Oil prices edged higher. Benchmark crude for April delivery was up 17 cents to $98.37 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 21 cents to close at $98.20 on Thursday.