Stocks Slip, Bonds Rally as Brexit Vote Looms

TOKYO/SINGAPORE (Reuters) -
A currency trader works at the foreign exchange dealing room of the KEB Hana Bank headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 14, 2016. Asian stocks surged Thursday in a second day of solid gains, buoyed by rallies on Wall Street and European markets, an uptick in China's trade and Singapore's unexpected easing of monetary policy.(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
A currency trader works at the foreign exchange dealing room of the KEB Hana Bank headquarters in Seoul, South Korea. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Asian shares pulled back on Friday as investors sought refuge in safe-haven assets amid festering concerns over the June 23 referendum that could see Britain exit the European Union.

European markets also look set to follow suit, with financial spreadbetters expecting Britain’s FTSE 100 and France’s CAC 40 to open about 0.2 percent lower, and Germany’s DAX to start the day down 0.1 percent.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan dipped 0.8 percent, but remains poised for a weekly gain of 1.4 percent.

Japan’s Nikkei closed 0.4 percent lower, extending losses for the week to 0.25 percent.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index slipped 0.7 percent, heading for a gain of 1 percent for the week. China is closed for a holiday.

“There are concerns over Brexit as polls seem to suggest the probability of Britain leaving Europe is rising,” said Tatsushi Maeno, managing director at PineBridge Investments.

“You can’t buy risk assets under such conditions even if you want to,” he said.

Wall Street shares also pulled back on Thursday after three days of gains, as a decline in the number of unemployment benefit claims last week showed the labor market remains strong despite May’s unexpected drop in job growth.

The S&P 500 lost 0.17 percent to finish at 2,115.48, but remained only about 15 points below its record closing high.

Global bond yields dropped to new lows and perceived safe-haven currencies gained as investors fled to the safety of bonds on concerns about Britain’s referendum on European Union membership on June 23.

“There are a number of different factors driving yields lower and it started last week with the weak U.S. jobs data pushing rate-hike expectations back,” said Patrick Jacq, European rate strategist at BNP Paribas.

“For the euro zone, this was the only constraining factor for lower yields.”

The German 10-year Bund yield hit a record low of 0.023 percent on Thursday, and was last trading at 0.038 percent. The 10-year British gilt yield struck an all-time low of 1.222 percent on Thursday.

The start of the European Central Bank’s corporate bond purchase program also bolstered European bonds.

In Japan, the 10-year government bond yield slipped to minus 0.150 percent, close to the record low of minus 0.155 percent seen earlier in the session.

The 10-year U.S. Treasuries yield broke out of the trading range it has been in since March to hit a 3½-month low of 1.659 percent on Thursday. It last stood at 1.6782 percent.

The retreat in risk sentiment is proving a boon for gold, which is hovering near a three-week high, and on track for a second straight weekly rise.

Spot gold pulled back 0.3 percent on Friday to $1,264.93 an ounce, after climbing as high as $1,271.31 overnight. It’s up 1.7 percent for the week.

In the currency market, the decline in U.S. unemployment benefit claims and weakness in other currencies supported the dollar index, which tracks the greenback against a basket of six peers. The index advanced 0.3 percent, extending gains for the week to 0.2 percent.

The Swiss franc has gained 1.6 percent over the past five days, its biggest five-day gain since March 2015, hitting an eight-week high of 1.0886 franc per euro on Thursday. It last stood at 1.08955, on track for a weekly increase of 1.8 percent.

The low-yielding yen, which tends to be bought back when risk appetite suffers, stood at 107.07 per dollar, clinging near five-week highs of 106.26 set on Thursday, but remains down 0.5 percent for the week.

The euro eased to $1.1295 from a four-week high of $1.1416 set on Thursday, but is poised for a weekly decline of 0.6 percent.

The British pound slipped 0.1 percent to $1.4444, having slipped from this week’s high of $1.4664 touched on Tuesday, and heading for a drop of 0.5 percent this week. Although it has stayed 4.5 percent above its seven-year low set in late February, investors are actively seeking protection against a slide in the event of Brexit. The cost of hedging against swings in sterling’s exchange rate over the next month soared, with sterling’s one-month implied volatility hitting its highest in more than seven years.

Oil prices also stepped back after notching another 2016 high. Still, persistent threats by militants against Nigeria’s oil industry and fear of more security incidents that could hit supply, limited losses in crude.

Global benchmark Brent crude futures slipped 0.7 percent to $51.60 per barrel, after having risen to as high as $52.86 on Thursday, and looks set to record a 4 percent gain for the week.

U.S. crude also slid 0.7 percent to $50.18 a barrel, poised to end the week 3.2 percent higher.