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FOREX-Yen jumps against dollar in virus-driven risk-off move

Kate Duguid

(New throughout, changes byline, previous dateline LONDON)

NEW YORK, Feb 24 (Reuters) - The Japanese yen jumped versus the U.S. dollar on Monday in a risk-off move spurred by the rise in coronavirus cases.

The safe-haven yen was last up 0.93% at 110.52 per dollar. The dollar index, which weighs the greenback against a basket of six peers can also function as a safe-haven trade, but was in negative territory for the day, likely because of a significant move lower in U.S. equities. It was last down 0.21% at 99.22 per dollar.

Italy, South Korea and Iran reported sharp rises in coronavirus cases on Monday, but China eased curbs as the infection rate there slowed and a visiting World Health Organization team said a turning point had been reached in the epicentre, Wuhan.

In response to the coronavirus headlines, the Dow Jones industrial average shed more than 800 points in early trade. All of the Dow's 30 blue-chip members, as well as the 11 major S&P sectors were in the red. Technology stocks dropped 3.5% and were the biggest drag on the benchmark index. Defensive utilities and real estate posted the smallest declines.

"Ultimately this is all a risk-off trade," said Marvin Loh, senior global markets strategist at State Street Global Markets.

"When you look at the yen, when you look at the Swissie, when you look at rates, it is risk-off. It's probably reflective, to a certain degree, of the market being a little too sanguine up until now ... so there's an adjustment process around it."

Still, the yen traded well within last week's range, and currency market moves were muted compared to the U.S. stocks and Treasuries. Analysts said investors might be discounting the yen's traditional safety value owing to Japan's virus exposure.

U.S. economic data last week came in below expectations. Money markets are now pricing in a Federal Reserve interest rate cut of 25 basis points in June.

"I've been thinking that the Fed is in a position where they're going to have to cut sometime this year," said Loh. "Not necessarily based on global growth but based on a lot of other things like inflation."

The Australian dollar, often traded as a proxy for China risk, weakened to an 11-year low of $0.658, but it retraced some of those losses in the North American session and was last down 0.18% to $0.662. (Reporting by Kate Duguid in New York and Tommy Wilkes in London; Editing by Richard Chang)