• Kyodo

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Tokyo stocks sank Wednesday, with the Nikkei index briefly falling over 600 points to below the 23,000 line for the first time since November, as Middle East tensions escalated after Iran fired missiles at Iraqi bases that host U.S. troops.

The 225-issue Nikkei average ended down 370.96 points, or 1.57 percent, from Tuesday at 23,204.76, its lowest close since Dec. 4. The broader Topix index of all first section issues on the Tokyo Stock Exchange finished 23.65 points, or 1.37 percent, lower at 1,701.40.

Investors briefly raced for safe-haven assets, with the U.S. dollar dropping to a three-month low of around ¥107.65 in early morning trading before recovering to the lower ¥108 range. Bonds and gold were also in high demand.

Accompanied by declines in other Asian share markets, a broad range of issues in Tokyo were sold, including in the marine transportation, precision instrument and real estate sectors.

The market turmoil was triggered by the launch of more than a dozen ballistic missiles by Iran targeting two Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. troops and coalition forces, in retaliation for the killing of a top Iranian general last Friday.

“Investors had thought there wouldn’t be a direct military action from Iran,” said Yutaka Miura, senior technical analyst at Mizuho Securities Co. “Shares tumbled on fears the conflict could escalate.”

However, stocks trimmed some earlier losses in the afternoon after a tweet from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stating, “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” and U.S. President Donald Trump suggested damage from the attacks was limited.

“That provided relief to the market,” said Makoto Sengoku, a market analyst at the Tokai Tokyo Research Institute. He added market players will remain cautious amid the U.S.-Iran tensions and are awaiting a statement from Trump set to be released later in the day.

Amid the risk-off mood, investors initially sold the dollar against the yen, but it was slightly bought back later on.

Gold futures jumped to a fresh record high at the Tokyo Commodity Exchange, and the yield on benchmark Japanese 10-year government debt fell further into negative territory.

Worries about the U.S.-Iran tensions lifted oil prices in Tokyo, with Middle East crude oil futures briefly spiking to the highest level in 7½ months at the commodity exchange.

On the first section, declining issues outnumbered advancers 1,981 to 150, while 30 ended unchanged.

The stronger yen weighed on automakers, among other export-related issues, with Suzuki Motor Corp. plunging ¥106, or 2.3 percent, to ¥4,435; Honda Motor Co. slumping ¥63, or 2.0 percent, to ¥3,026; and Toyota Motor Corp. losing ¥98, or 1.3 percent, to ¥7,617.

Marine transportation issues took a hit from fears that the heightened tensions in the Middle East will push up fuel prices. Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha collapsed ¥105, or 5.9 percent, to ¥1,665; Mitsui OSK Lines tumbled ¥112, or 3.9 percent, to ¥2,791; and Nippon Yusen K.K. was down ¥59, or 3.1 percent, at ¥1,872.

Trading volume on the main section rose to 1.45 billion shares from 1.16 billion shares Tuesday.

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