The safe-haven yen hovered near a seven-week high against the dollar on Thursday as investors limited their exposure to riskier assets amid dire global economic data, rising trade tensions and concerns over the euro zone.
The yen last stood at 106.15, after rising to 105.985 per dollar in the previous session, its firmest since mid-March. Against the euro, it traded at 114.66 yen per euro, having hit a 3 1/2-year high of 114.43 overnight.
“The yen is gaining as there are some questions over the European Central Bank’s stimulus, and as tensions between the United States and China increase again,” said Shinichiro Kadota, senior strategist at Barclays.
Germany’s highest court on Tuesday gave the European Central Bank three months to justify purchases under its bond-buying program, or lose the Bundesbank’s participation in one of its main stimulus schemes.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday renewed his aggressive criticism of China, as the Trump administration weighs punitive actions against Beijing over its early handling of the virus outbreak.
President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he was closely watching to see if China is fulfilling its obligations under a Phase 1 trade deal the two countries signed in January before the coronavirus spread globally.
“Last month we saw an easing in risk-off trades. But such optimism may not last long,” said Shinji Ishimaru, senior currency analyst at MUFG Bank.
“We are likely to begin to see how severe normalisation will be after the great lockdown.”
A private business survey on China, where most official lockdowns ended more than two months ago, showed the country’s service sectory activity remained mired in contraction in April as layoffs hit a record and export orders plunged.
The Caixin/Markit services Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) did manage to pull up to 44.4 in April from 43 in March but was still way below its 51-55 range before the pandemic.
In a further sign of weak consumption in China, the country’s imports dropped 14.2% from a year ago, a bigger decline than economists’ forecast of 11.2% fall.
But exports rose 3.5% despite expectations of 15.7% drop, helping to lift the Chinese yuan and the Australian dollar slightly.
The yuan firmed about 0.1% to 7.0959 to the dollar while the Aussie ticked up 0.25% to $0.6420.
Still, that hardly lifted the global gloom.
In the United States, private employers laid off a record 20.2 million workers in April in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
The staggering number, while widely anticipated since 30.3 million people had filed claims for unemployment benefits since March 21, underscored the colossal damage to the economy.
In Europe, euro zone business activity almost ground to a halt last month while retail sales suffered their largest decline on record in March amid government-imposed lockdowns.
In the UK, British construction suffered its sharpest decline on record, more than twice as large as the previous month, even though general construction work was not ordered by the government to stop.
The euro was little changed at $1.0801 after three straight days of falls so far this week, hit also by the German court decision challenging the country’s participation in the European Central Bank’s stimulus.
The British pound eased a tad on Thursday to $1.2322, touching its lowest level in almost two weeks.
The risk-averse mood undermined emerging market currencies, especially those of countries that are struggling to contain the coronavirus.
The Brazilian real dropped to 5.714 per dollar, just a hair above its record low touched last month after rating agency Fitch lowered the country’s credit rating to negative.
Brazil’s central bank slashed interest rates more than expected on Wednesday to shore up the economy though it is likely to undermine the real further.
The currency has lost 4% so far this month, and 29.7% this year, the worst among major emerging market currencies.
The country registered a record number of cases and deaths on Wednesday and has had 1.5 times as many cases as China.
President Jair Bolsonaro has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum for dismissing the threat of the virus as a “little flu.”
The Turkish lira stood at 7.2045 per dollar, close to its all-time low of 7.24 hit during a 2018 currency crisis as the country’s depleted currency reserves added to the pressure.