Jan 6, 2020

World markets seek safety after a weekend of threats

Protesters have taken to the streets all over the world to object to U.S. actions, including this rally in front of the U.S. embassy in Manila. Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images

The price of gold hit its highest in nearly seven years, oil hit a four-month peak and stocks were in the red across Asia and Europe, with Gulf stocks from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia down and S&P futures lower, as tensions between the U.S. and Iran ratcheted up over the weekend.

What happened: President Trump warned in a tweet that if Iran retaliated for the killing of General Qasem Soleimani last week it would face "very hard and very fast" attacks on 52 targets.

  • His threat followed one from Iranian leadership that the U.S. would face "severe retaliation" and a decision by Iraq's parliament asking U.S. and other foreign troops to leave the country after Soleimani was killed in a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad.
  • Perhaps most notably, Iran said it would no longer restrict its uranium enrichment, increasing the threat it could develop a nuclear weapon.

Of note: Safe-haven assets like U.S. Treasuries and the Japanese yen also saw buying, with the dollar touching its weakest in three months against the yen.

Yes, but: While the war of words has many on edge and fearing the worst, for financial markets much of the reaction seen since Friday's airstrike will be short-lived, if history is a guide.

  • A hedge-fund analysis from Kensho cited by CNBC found that crude prices see a positive change more than 80% of the time in the month following major Middle East crisis events, along with a temporary bump for gold, with stocks as the next most successful short-term asset classes.
  • Over a three-month horizon, data show that stocks and oil continue to rise, while safe-haven assets like Treasuries fall and gold is flat.

What to watch: The attack on Soleimani and coming fallout will most acutely impact the oil market, analysts say.

  • “The risk of further escalation has clearly gone up — given the direct attack on Iran, Iran’s threat of retaliation and Trump’s desire to look tough — posing the threat of higher oil prices,” Shane Oliver, chief economist at AMP Capital, told Reuters.
  • “Historically, though, oil prices need to double to pose a severe threat to global growth and we are long way from that.”

Go deeper:

Go deeper

What Middle East crisis? Why oil prices aren't rising

Data: EIA; Chart: Axios Visuals

Despite rising unrest in the Middle East — including the death of an Iranian commander — America’s average gasoline prices have remained under $3 a gallon.

Why it matters: Practically speaking, it’s great for drivers’ pocketbooks — and President Trump’s re-election campaign. It also shows the remarkable cushion created by the United States' booming oil production, which has doubled over the last decade.

Go deeperArrowJan 8, 2020

How stocks shake off geopolitical tensions

Reproduced from LPL Research; Note: The average reflects figures from the original list. Not all market shock events were included in this reproduction; Table: Axios Visuals

U.S. stocks have already recovered their losses from tensions in the Middle East that flared when a U.S. airstrike killed Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani last week. The same is largely true for crude oil, which has erased all of its gains since the incident, and a number of other risk assets.

What's happening: "Welcome to the brave new world where it appears that little short of full-fledged world war between nuclear-armed powers would be required to have a durable impact on financial markets. And even then, some begin to wonder," Reuters' Sujata Rao and Dhara Ranasinghe write.

Gold has been 2020's star asset

U.S. equities have been both resilient and rangebound following the killing of Iran Gen. Qasem Soleimani, but gold has seen a major boost, jumping to its highest level in close to seven years and continuing to climb.

The big picture: Even in the face of better-than-expected U.S. data released Tuesday morning, gold edged higher.

Go deeperArrowJan 8, 2020