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Dollar firm, oil eases as action on Syria looks delayed

By Richard Hubbard

LONDON (Reuters) - Upbeat economic data from the United States kept the dollar near a four-week high against major currencies on Friday though oil prices fell as expectations of an imminent U.S.-led strike against Syria ebbed.

U.S. stock index futures pointed to a firmer start when Wall Street opens though as more economic numbers due out on private spending and manufacturing activity were likely to add to the growing picture of an economy steadily improving.

However, a holiday weekend in America and month-end positioning by traders was keeping activity light and markets remain worried about the Middle East and the impact of an early withdrawal of stimulus by the Federal Reserve.

"I think the dollar recovery trend remains in place, though we may see a pause over the next few days," said Ian Stannard, head of European foreign exchange strategy at Morgan Stanley.

"The underlying fundamental picture is still there and that comes down to a rise in global yields and a rise in the U.S. dollar that is still going to weigh on the more vulnerable currencies."

Most major equity markets and many emerging currencies looked set to end the week and the month sharply lower as investors pull out of riskier assets in expectation of the Fed action and some form of Western intervention against Syria.

The growing caution was reflected in a Reuters asset allocation poll of 54 fund managers across the United States, Europe and Japan. It showed investors had increased cash holdings to their highest level in a year, while also lifting exposure to equities and cutting bond positions.


Fears of broader conflict in the Middle East have eased slightly after Britain said it would not join any military action, although France said it still backs action to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government for an apparent poison gas attack on civilians.

Any military strike now looks likely to be delayed at least until U.N. investigators report back after leaving Syria on Saturday, with Russia still fiercely opposing any move and China cautioning against any U.N. Security Council action until the investigation is complete.

The easing of tensions over Syria sent Brent crude oil to near $115 a barrel, off highs of $117 set earlier this week when military action seemed imminent. U.S. crude was down 55 cents to $108.25.

"The situation is still volatile," said Alex Yap, an analyst at energy consultancy FGE in Singapore. "If the U.S. decides to attack, prices could be pushed higher."


MSCI's world equity index, which tracks shares in 45 countries, was virtually flat on Friday but was heading for its worst week of the month and its worst month since June.

European shares were feeling the pressure from a drop in oil stocks with the broader STOXX Europe 600 index down 0.5 percent, taking its weekly losses to around 2.1 percent.

Earlier, MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan finished up about 0.7 percent, managing a 0.1 percent weekly gain but a 1.3 percent monthly loss. Japan's Nikkei lost 0.5 percent despite new data that painted a brighter economic picture.

Currency markets focused on the economic outlook and interest rate differentials after U.S. data on Thursday showed a better-than-expected annual growth of 2.5 percent in the second quarter.

Combined with strength in the U.S. labour market, the data has bolstered the case for the Fed to begin winding down stimulus as early as September.

This has pushed up the interest rate-sensitive two-year U.S. Treasury yield to its highest since early July at 0.3947 percent and the 10-year yield back up to 2.76 percent and lent support to the dollar.

The dollar index, which measures its value against six major currencies, was at 81.994, not far from a four-week high of 82.067 struck on Thursday.

Among emerging currencies, the Indian rupee was trading at 67.36 per dollar, down from Thursday's close of 66.55. It has tumbled 10.4 percent against the dollar so far this month, and looks to be heading for its largest monthly fall ever, according to Thomson Reuters data.

In commodity markets, gold fell one percent to below $1,400 an ounce, moving away from a 3-1/2 month high hit on Wednesday when the fears over Syria prompted a flight to safety.

(Additional reporting by Chris Johnson; editing by Stephen Nisbet)