A US missile strike on a Syrian air base sent investors into havens including the Japanese yen, gold and government bonds while crude oil jumped to a month high above $56 a barrel.
The initially sharp reaction by Asia markets, which sent a variety of assets to multimonth peaks, eased in London and comes at the end of a busy week. Investors have been weighing how and when the Federal Reserve may start reducing its balance sheet, possible outcomes from the summit between the presidents of the US and China, and US jobs data due later on Friday.
Oil and gold were the biggest beneficiaries, with Brent crude rising 2 per cent to $56.08 a barrel, the highest since early March, while gold reached its highest level so far in 2017, touching $1,269.28 an ounce.
“[The] geopolitical premium is on the rise again,” said Tamas Varga at London-based oil broker PVM.
President Donald Trump, speaking in Florida where he was hosting his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, said he ordered the air strike in response to a gas attack this week that claimed the lives of more than 70 people: “It is in the vital national security interest of the US to prevent and deter the spread or use of deadly chemical weapons,” he said.
Ray Attrill, the global co-head of forex strategy at National Australia Bank in Sydney, said currency markets displayed “a classic risk-off response to the news”.
“The yen . . . continues to be the go-to asset in times of market stress.”
The Japanese currency was up 0.2 per cent in early European trade at ¥110.64 per dollar, hovering at its strongest levels since mid-November. The yen had a whippy Asia session, first declining before recovering to trade as much as 0.6 per cent stronger at ¥110.13.
The yield on the 10-year US Treasury fell below 2.29 per cent in intraday trading for the first time since November 30 — a level seen by some analysts as potentially damaging for the US dollar. Bond yields move inversely to prices.
“Dollar-yen is still the currency most as risk from seeing further movement,” Mr Attrill said. “But it would have to go hand in hand with [Treasury] yields breaking decisively though that range. If it is geopolitical stress that takes it there, that’s going to feed back into the market’s assessment of whether the Fed is going to pull back in tightening interest rates.”
The US dollar index, a measure of the greenback against a basket of global peers, was flat at 100.64. An initial jump following news of the air strike was eroded as the yen rallied.
Equities were under pressure, but oil stocks were a bright spot across Europe and Asia due to crude’s gains, though Brent later came off its highs with no immediate, direct threat to supplies.
Futures tipped the S&P 500 to open US trading 0.2 per cent lower, but they had at one point been down as much as 0.7 per cent. Similarly, the pan-European Stoxx 600 equity index pared early losses to trade down just 0.3 per cent as London-listed gold miners offered support.
Japanese exporters also found some respite as the yen pared its gains in the afternoon in Tokyo. The benchmark Topix closed 0.7 per cent higher, recovering from a 0.1 per cent dip but unable to recover gains of as much as 1.2 per cent before news of the missile strike.