April 10, 2017 / 8:55 AM / 4 months ago

Geopolitics from France to Korea keep investors cautious

A computer screen showing stock graphs is reflected on glasses in this illustration photo taken in Bordeaux, France, March 30, 2016.Regis Duvignau/Files

LONDON (Reuters) - Muted trading volumes across many financial assets on Monday and the dollar rising to a three-week high underscored investor caution against making big bets in the face of geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and the Korean peninsula.

It is also a holiday-shortened week in much of the West.

Stock futures on Wall Street were up 0.1 percent.

The dollar inched higher drawing support from U.S. rate hike expectations while global stocks, reaching the point where some see them as expensive, were stuck in neutral ahead of U.S. earnings season this week.

European stocks were off 0.1 percent with industrials and energy sectors the biggest drags. Shares of mining major BHP Billiton were up more than 3 percent, however, after activist hedge fund Elliot Management urged the company to pursue a spin-off of its U.S. business.

The company, in a statement, said the costs involved with Elliott's proposals outweigh their benefits.

The increased geopolitical risks continued to spur investors to move into safer assets such as government debt.

Top aides to U.S. President Donald Trump differed on Sunday on where U.S. policy on Syria was headed after last week's attack on a Syrian air base, while U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned the strikes were a warning to other nations, including North Korea.

"Given that geopolitical tensions escalated last week, it is reasonable to expect a shift in favour of the US dollar, at least in the short-term," analysts at Rabobank said in a note.

The euro edged lower and France's borrowing costs hit their highest level over Germany in six weeks as investors fretted over the rise of far-left candidate Jean Luc Melenchon in polls before this month's presidential vote.

Melenchon's emergence over the past week has raised the possibility that he will square off against far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the decisive second round in May, making the final result far more unpredictable.

France's bond yield spread over Germany hit 70 basis points in early trading on Monday, its highest since Feb. 27,.

"The market is focusing a bit too much on the extreme possibilities, but I guess with the elections coming up so soon some nerves are inevitable," said DZ Bank strategist Christian Lenk. "But at the end of the day I think (the second round) will be Macron versus Le Pen."

Global stocks have traded flat over the past month after the 10 percent rise since last November's lows took valuations above long-term averages. The MSCI AC World index trades at 16 times forward earnings, compared to a 15-year average of about 14 times.

In commodities, oil prices rose nearly 1 percent supported by strong demand and uncertainty over the conflict in Syria and another shutdown at Libya's largest oilfield.

Brent crude futures, the international benchmark for oil prices, were up 55 cents at $55.79 per barrel.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures were up 50 cents at $52.75 a barrel.

Additional reporting by Abhinav Ramnarayan Editing by Jeremy Gaunt

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