Oil, gold open lower despite Syria strikes; Russian retaliation in focus




A Syrian firefighter is seen inside the destroyed Scientific Research Centre in Damascus
A Syrian firefighter is seen inside the destroyed Scientific Research Centre in Damascus  

By Jan Harvey and Jessica Resnick-Ault

LONDON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Gold and oil traded slightly lower as markets opened for the first time since Western powers launched a missile attack on Syria, but equities are unlikely to experience big losses unless the West strikes again or Russia retaliates.

"The news flow is actually better than what it looked like at one point during last week, as the strike was surgical, followed by a pullback. Reports show a lot of care was taken not to hit Russian targets, which is a good sign and the market should take heart from that," said Salman Ahmed, chief investment strategist at Lombard Odier investment managers in London, speaking before trading resumed.

Spot gold and major crude benchmarks eased slightly, as the market reacted to the military actions over the weekend. Treasuries also weakened, while equities rose.

Gold has benefited in recent days as a safe-haven asset amid a U.S.-China trade dispute and the escalating conflict in Syria, which also pushed oil above $70 a barrel because of concerns about a spike in Middle Eastern tensions.

"It ended up being a very measured attack," said John Kilduff, a partner at Again Capital Management in New York. "The greater fears of the oil market of this spilling into a greater conflict that could involve Iran and Saudi Arabia has not and will not come to pass."

World stocks wobbled last week but still ended with the best weekly gain in over a month, as investors await potentially healthy U.S. company earnings.

Despite heightened geopolitical risks, the impact on so-called safe-haven assets has been short-lived and modest. While the yen rose initially on fears of a Syrian strike, it ended near seven-week lows to the dollar last week.

On Saturday, U.S., French and British missile attacks struck at the heart of Syria's chemical weapons program in retaliation for a suspected poison gas attack a week ago, although the assault appeared unlikely to halt Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's progress in the seven-year-old civil war.

(For map of Syrian strikes, see https://tmsnrt.rs/2EKgAMN)

The bombing, denounced by Damascus and its allies as an illegal act of aggression, was the biggest intervention by Western countries against Assad and his powerful ally Russia.

But the three countries said the strikes were limited to Syria's chemical weapons capabilities and not aimed at toppling Assad or intervening in the civil war.

Naeem Aslam, chief market analyst at Think Markets, said gold was poised to gain on Monday but the rally would not be very steep: "The focus will be on the counter-reaction from Russia."

Gold, often used as a store of value in times of political and economic uncertainty, could rally toward $1,400 per ounce after two consecutive weeks of gains.

"If we do break above $1,365, that next week we would be very bullish," said Aslam.

Tokyo will be the first major market to open on Monday and the yen will likely strengthen to the dollar, but not beyond 106.50, said Itsuo Toshima, market analyst at Toshima & Associates, adding that he did not expect stocks traders to make sharp moves.

"The first attack was within expectations and was already priced in the market. ... However, if there is a second round of strikes, that is not in line with expectations. So that should prompt a sharp risk-off move in markets," he added.

Frank Benzimra, head of global markets for Asia Pacific at Societe Generale Corporate and Investment Banking, said stocks would plunge only in case of new strikes by Western powers.

In case of such an escalation, oil would rally further, the yen would spike and Japan's domestic defensive stocks would outperform international stocks.

"For the stress on Asia equity markets to be sustainable, we would need to have oil prices spiking to such a level that fundamental concerns, i.e. higher inflation and risks on growth, return to the market," he said.

Amrita Sen from Energy Aspects said that despite Middle Eastern tensions and looming new U.S. sanctions on Iran, oil had outperformed most expectations this year and may have rallied too far too fast.

"We are likely to get a sell-off this week as the extent of the Syrian strikes have been muted and, in general, calmer nerves prevail in Washington," she said.

Oil traders had locked in long positions ahead of the weekend, in anticipation of potential strikes, sending both West Texas Intermediate (CLc1) and global benchmark Brent (LCOc1) crude futures to their highest since 2014.


(Reporting by Jan Harvey in London and Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York; Additional reporting by Vidya Ranganathan, Sujata Rao and Dmitry Zhdannikov; Editing by David Evans and Peter Cooney)

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