The dollar dropped to its lowest point in almost 16 years Wednesday — briefly touching below 80 yen — amid a perilous nuclear crisis in Japan, debt woes in Europe, tension in the Middle East and weak economic reports at home.
The dollar is now close to its lowest point of the post-World War II era — 79.75 yen struck in April 1995 — as leaks of radioactivity from a stricken Japanese nuclear plant have deepened the Asian country's woes following last week's massive earthquake and tsunami.
Many analysts have said they expect the Bank of Japan to try to weaken the yen if the dollar drops below 80 yen. A strong yen hurts the Asian country's exporters, potentially deepening any hit to the economy from the earthquake and lingering nuclear crisis.
"It's safe to assume that no one in Japan wants to see dollar-yen trade much below 80 and certainly not below 79.75," said David Gilmore of Foreign Exchange Analytics in Essex, Conn.
In afternoon trading in New York Wednesday, the dollar was worth 80.16 Japanese yen, down from 80.83 yen late Tuesday, after earlier sinking to as low as 79.96 yen.
Despite the devastation and intensifying nuclear threat in Japan, the yen has been rising. That's in part because the yen is a traditional safe-haven currency, benefiting during periods of international turmoil. Also, market trackers expect Japanese investors to close down overseas bets and bring their money home, which has been driving the yen higher.
The bounce higher Wednesday was not big enough to indicate that the Bank of Japan and the Japanese government had intervened in foreign exchange markets, however, said Marc Chandler, global head of currency strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman in New York.
Japan, acting alone, intervened to weaken the yen in September 2010. This time efforts to curb the yen's rise may be different.
Chandler posited that a reported call for a meeting of finance ministers of the Group of 7 major economies could result in an international move to stabilize the yen. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde had called for a meeting of G-7 finance ministers and central bankers to determine how to "react on a financial level" to the crisis in Japan and its effect on world markets.
"It's clear that the Bank of Japan stands ready and able to intervene in the market with the blessing of the G-7 and the international community," said Michael Woolfolk, senior currency strategist at Bank of New York Mellon Corp. in New York.
Meanwhile, the euro dropped to $1.3922 from $1.4000 and the British pound fell to $1.6007 from $1.6092 amid tensions from elsewhere around the globe.
Portugal raised $1.4 billion in a debt auction Wednesday, but the indebted country had to pay higher interest rates to investors a day after Moody's downgraded its credit rating, refocusing some attention on Europe's debt crisis.
In the Middle East, soldiers and police cracked down on hundreds of protesters in Bahrain, a neighbor of Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest producer of oil. If upheaval spills into Saudi Arabia, oil production could be greatly affected. A Saudi-led force is already in Bahrain, and analysts fear tensions between Saudi Arabia and its Shiite rival Iran, another major oil producer. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday denounced the Bahraini government's moves and the Saudi-led forces in Bahrain.
There were also negative signals for the U.S. economy Wednesday in government reports.
The Labor Department said producer prices in the U.S. posted the steepest rise last month since June 2009 because of climbing food and energy prices. But apart from those, inflation remained muted in February, suggesting the Federal Reserve isn't likely to raise interest rates any time soon.
Higher rates, used to fight inflation, tend to support a currency.
Another government report on housing indicated that the real estate market was a long way from a recovery, weighing on the broader economy. Home construction dropped 22.5 percent in February from January to a seasonally adjusted 479,000 homes last month. That's the lowest level since April 2009 and the second-lowest on record. Permits to start new projects fell to the lowest level on records going back to 1960.
"With core (producer prices) inflation still low and the economic recovery constrained by the continued weakness in housing, the Fed is not going to respond by tightening policy," wrote Paul Ashworth, an economist with research firm Capital Economics, in a research note.
The Fed on Tuesday remained committed to seeing its $600 billion bond-buying program through June, which is meant to lower long-term interest rates, and reiterated that it would hold the key U.S. interest rate near zero for an "extended period."
In other trading Wednesday, the dollar rose to 99.10 Canadian cents from 98.24 Canadian cents but fell to 0.9092 Swiss franc from 0.9175 Swiss franc, after setting a new record low of 0.9070 Swiss franc earlier in the day.
The franc, like the dollar and the yen, are considered by traders to be safe-haven currencies, and tend to rise during periods of geopolitical tension.
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