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Oil, safe havens surge after US air strike kills Iran commander in Iraq

In September, US officials blamed Iran for a missile and drone attack on oil installations of Saudi Aramco, the Saudi state energy giant and world's largest oil exporter

Marc Jones | Reuters  |  London 

Iran Commander killing protest
Demonstrators attend a protest against the killing of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, in Tehran on Friday. Photo: Reuters

jumped nearly $3 a barrel and gold, the yen and safe-haven bonds all rallied on Friday, after the US killing of Iran’s top military commander in an air strike in Iraq ratcheted up tensions between the two powers. Traders were clearly spooked after the death of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force and one of the country's most influential figures, and a vow by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of revenge.

The Middle East-focused oil saw the most dramatic moves with futures leaping as much 4.5 per cent to $69.20 a barrel, their highest since September, though the impact was felt across almost every asset class. Europe’s STOXX 600 and Wall Street futures both fell around 1 per cent as New Year optimism evaporated. The yen rose half a per cent to the dollar to a two-month high and the Swiss franc hit its highest against the euro since September.

“Geopolitics has come back to the table, and this is something that could have major cross-asset implications," said Lombard Odier’s chief investment strategist, Salman Ahmed. “What is critical is how it pans out in the next few days,” Ahmed said.

"Whether it turns into a theme depends on Iran's reaction and then the US response."

Soleimani's Quds Force and its paramilitary proxies, ranging from Lebanon's Hezbollah to the PMF in Iraq, have ample means to mount a response.

In September, US officials blamed for a missile and drone attack on oil installations of Saudi Aramco, the Saudi state energy giant and world's largest oil exporter.

The Trump administration did not respond, beyond heated rhetoric and threats, and settled down within a week.

But Friday's attacks saw governments, including the US, urging citizens in the region either to return home or to stay away from potential targets and public gatherings. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a round of TV interviews that the United States remained committed to de-escalation with but that it had needed to defend itself.

"He (Soleimani) was actively plotting in the region to take actions - a big action as he described it - that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk. We know it was imminent," Pompeo told CNN.

With around an hour to go before the start of Wall Street trading, Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq futures were down between 1 per cent and 1.2 per cent despite the jump in crude pushing oil majors like Exxon Mobil and Chevron.

SCRAMBLE TO SAFETY


German Bunds and US Treasuries -- the world's benchmark government bonds and typically seen as the safest assets -- caught a bid, too.

US 10-year yields, which move inversely to prices, fell 5 basis points to a three-week low and Bund yields dropped away from seven-month highs they had touched at the start of the week.

Oil, safe havens surge after US air strike kills Iran commander in Iraq
The focus on geopolitics meant paid little attention to stronger-than-expected data from France, where inflation rose 1.6% year-on-year in December, beating analyst expectations for a 1.4 per cent rise.

German inflation figures were also higher although unemployment in Europe's largest economy rose more than expected, other data showed. Investors also have the minutes of the US Federal Reserve's Dec. 10-11 meeting due at 1900 GMT.

"Markets still remain quite thin after the holidays, but even in a regular session we would have seen a similar reaction," said Christian Lenk, a rates strategist at DZ Bank in Frankfurt, referring to the Middle East-sparked drop in yields.

The air strikes in Iraq had also killed top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. They prompted strong critcism from Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and some of Donald Trump's main political opponents in Washington. Most of the community called for a deescalation.

Back in the markets, gold, the other traditional refuge for risk-averse investors, rose 1 per cent to a four-month high of $1,545.

For the week, it has gained about 2 per cent and is heading for a fourth consecutive weekly increase.

"After the recent escalations in geopolitical issues, we see a resistance level near the $1,575 level for the next week," said Jigar Trivedi, a commodities analyst at Anand Rathi Shares & Stock Brokers in Mumbai.

First Published: Fri, January 03 2020. 22:17 IST
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