* U.S. housing starts fall but single-family housing gains
* Japan PM Abe backtracks on foreign bond buying
* Sterling drops sharply after dovish BoE minutes
* RBNZ governor says New Zealand dollar overvalued
By Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss
NEW YORK, Feb 20 The dollar edged higher against
the yen on Wednesday, helped by data showing an overall
improvement in the U.S. housing market.
U.S. housing starts declined last month, but the fall was
due to the more volatile multi-family component, while the
single-family category rose to its highest since July 2008.
Building permits also increased to their quickest pace
since June 2008.
"This is a data-driven pop in the dollar because we saw U.S.
yields tick higher following the report," said Brian Kim,
currency strategist, at RBS Securities in Stamford, Connecticut.
"Housing starts may have missed but they are still
relatively high compared to where we are in the cycle. Overall,
I would say, housing starts and building permits were generally
The report's impact on the dollar versus the yen was a bit
of a surprise as, for the past few months, the currency pair has
been driven by Japanese monetary policy despite major U.S. data.
The yen had gained on Tuesday on signs of a rift between
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso
with respect to foreign bond purchases. Aso had said that he was
not considering foreign bond buying, while Abe had indicated
that was an option.
The disagreement suggested Japan's supposedly aggressive
monetary policy was less clear cut than before, which could slow
the pace of yen selling.
On Wednesday, however, both Japanese officials seemed to be
on the same page. Abe mirrored Aso's stance, saying the need to
establish a public-private sector fund to buy foreign bonds has
Foreign bond purchases would have helped push the yen lower,
so suggestions that Japan is no longer considering this helped
The possibility of setting up a foreign bond-buying fund had
been included in a campaign platform drawn up by Abe's Liberal
Democratic Party ahead of a national election last December.
The dollar fell as low as 93.11 yen after Abe's
remarks, before recovering to trade at 93.71 yen, up 0.1 percent
on the day, helped largely by the U.S. housing data.
The greenback though was still below a nearly three-year
high of 94.42 hit on Feb. 11. The euro, meanwhile, was 0.1
percent higher at 125.39 yen.
Europe's common currency also trimmed losses against the
dollar to trade little changed on the day at $1.3374,
drawing support from the generally positive U.S. housing numbers
suggesting traders were putting a bit more risk on the table.
Sterling, however, stole the limelight in the European
session, tumbling to its lowest in more than eight months
against the dollar and a 16-month trough versus the
euro after minutes from the latest Bank of England
meeting showed policymakers were willing to ease policy
The pound last traded down 0.8 percent at $1.5301, while the
euro last changed hands at 87.42 pence, up 0.7 percent on the
Investors will now turn to the release of minutes from the
U.S. Federal Reserve's latest policy meeting. Any hint the Fed
is getting closer to paring back its asset purchase scheme could
help lift the dollar broadly.
In early New York trading, the dollar index was up 0.2
percent at 80.59.
NEW ZEALAND DOLLAR DROPS
Also on Wednesday, Reserve Bank of New Zealand governor
Graeme Wheeler said global imbalances and a weak U.S. dollar
were driving up the New Zealand dollar and had left the currency
overvalued compared to economic fundamentals.
The New Zealand dollar slid 0.9 percent to US$0.8388
after those comments.
"Currency wars are still what's driving markets, whether
it's the RBNZ, or Japan talking about buying or not buying
bonds," said Daragh Maher, currency strategist at HSBC.
"Even when we have juicier bits of data we are still
worrying more about what BoJ members say."