Investment Strategy

How are markets adjusting to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine?

Three things are starting to become clear as the invasion continues.

Our Top Market Takeaways for March 04, 2022.

Market update

Adjusting to the geopolitical crisis 

 

It’s been a week since Russia invaded Ukraine, and markets are still trying to adjust to the geopolitical crisis and shocking tragedy in the region. Trading across asset classes was volatile all week. U.S. stocks trended higher through Thursday despite choppy trading (especially in overnight sessions), while European stocks are at their lowest levels of the year on Friday morning. European banks, in particular, are feeling the strain. The group is down over 25% from highs reached in early February because of exposure to both Russian assets and assets in countries with large links to Russia (such as Turkey). The invasion has also probably extended the timeline for policy normalization from the European Central Bank, which investors were counting on to support European lenders. The turbulence in fixed income markets didn’t help either.   

This chart shows the year-to-date return of European and U.S. banks. Both indices began well to start the year, with European banks climbing to 8.7% in mid-January and U.S. banks climbing to 11.7%. Both indices fell, European banks to 0.4% on January 24 and U.S. banks to 0.2% on January 20. They both steadily rose. European banks climbed to a series high of 15.6% on February 10 before falling consistently to -12.7% on March 1. As of late, it has returned -12.4%. Meanwhile, U.S. banks returned 8.8% on February 9, 8.5% on February 15 and fell to -0.8% on February 22. It rose briefly, before lagging again -4.0% on February 25. As of late, it has returned -1.3%.

Bond yields globally collapsed at the beginning of the week as investors sought safe havens. At their lows, German 10-year bond yields were back in negative territory, and U.S. 2-year yields dropped below 1.3%. Heading into Friday, German 10-year yields were back near zero, and U.S. 2-year yields were back to 1.50%. One source of clarity came from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s testimony on Capitol Hill, when he all but confirmed that the Fed will raise the policy rate by 25 basis points at its March 15–16 meeting.   

The tragic situation in Ukraine remains fluid, but some of the potential market and economic consequences of Russia’s invasion are becoming clearer. Today, we want to focus on three important ones that we see. 

Spotlight

Invasion impacts

 
Western sanctions have shunned Russia from the modern financial world. Banning Russian banks from the SWIFT communication system is abstract. These things are very tangible:
  • BP, Exxon and other oil majors abandoning their Russian joint ventures
  • Russian commuters digging in their pockets for cash because Apple Pay no longer works in the Moscow subway
  • The ruble losing 50% of its value against the U.S. dollar, crushing purchasing power and almost guaranteeing spiraling inflation
  • The Russian Central Bank hiking short-term rates to 20% to defend the currency, almost guaranteeing an economic depression
  • The stock market staying closed because Russian companies traded in the West have lost over 80% of their market value in just 10 days
  • Oligarch yachts wandering the seas in search of a port where they won’t get seized
  • Roman Abramovich selling Chelsea Football Club 
The financial and economic collapse in Russia has happened even though Western sanctions explicitly carve out energy and agricultural products, Russia’s most important exports. Russian oil is available for sale, but dealers can’t find buyers, even at historic discounts. Even if there is a ceasefire or (somehow) regime change, it will likely take years for the Russian economy to recover.
This chart shows the value of the ruble currency per U.S. dollar from December 31, 2018, until March 3, 2022. The first data point came in at 69.7 rubles per dollar. From there, the ruble strengthened to 62.8 rubles per dollar by July 18, 2019. Here, the ruble weakened to 66.8 by September 3, 2019. Then it strengthened to 61.1 by January 10, 2020. From there, it weakened to 80.9 by March 18, 2020, before strengthening to 68.5 by June 10, 2020. Then it weakened again to 80.5 by November 2, 2020. From there, it increased in value to 72.8 by March 16, 2021. Then it weakened to 77.4 by April 9, 2021. From there, it strengthened to 72.1 before weakening again to 74.7 by July 19, 2021. Here, it strengthened to 69.6 before weakening to 75 rubles per dollar by February 10, 2022. From there until recently, the currency weakened to 106.7 rubles per dollar.

Global commodity prices are soaring. Russian agriculture and energy are still technically part of the global market place, but their supply is effectively off limits. The result is that, over the last week, prices for products from U.K. natural gas (+100%) to wheat (+30%), to iron (+15%) are surging. The most economically important global commodity, crude oil, is trading around $110 per barrel for the first time since the early 2010s. These moves in commodity prices complicate the picture for central bankers, who have to incorporate an impulse that should boost inflation and pinch growth. Traditionally, they focus on “core” inflation, which strips out food and energy prices because they are so volatile. But in this case, it seems reasonable to expect that higher commodity prices will flow through somewhat to other items they do care about (such as transportation services or energy-intensive manufactured goods).

However, we don’t think oil prices are close to pinching the U.S. economy. Crude oil prices have been depressed since they collapsed in 2014. If they had just grown commensurate with the prices for other goods and services in the economy from then, we would expect crude to be around $125 per barrel. Further, energy goods and services only make up ~4% of consumer wallet share. Higher gasoline prices mean pain at the pump, and will likely cause a political problem for the Biden administration, but we don’t think they will cause a recession.       

This chart shows the energy goods and services as a percentage of total personal consumption expenditures. It began at 7.3%, steadily falling to 6.1% by June 1972. It rose to 7.6% in December 1974, remained relatively steady, then rose again to a series high of 9.3% in June 1981. It fell to 5.8% by December 1986 and 4.0% in March 1999. It rose to 5.0% in March 2001 before falling again to 3.9% in March 2002. It rose to 6.6% in September 2008, dipped to 4.8% in March 2009, and rose again to 6.0% in September 2011. It fell at this point to 3.8% in March 2016, rallied slightly, then fell again to 3.4% in June 2020. As of late, it rose to 4.2% by the end of 2021.

There are areas of growth, even in the current climate. We had a cautious outlook on Latin American economies coming into this year. However, higher commodity and energy prices have typically led to growth in this region. Indeed, the top three performing countries in the MSCI universe so far this year are Peru, Brazil and Colombia. Likewise, Middle Eastern markets such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are up double digits.

The invasion has also placed a renewed emphasis on traditional defense (Germany has announced new spending worth 2% of GDP this year). Unsurprisingly, defense companies are up 10% in the past week. Clean energy companies have also rallied ~15% as a greater emphasis is placed on energy independence in Europe. The transition will not be immediate, but renewable energy will continue to be a priority for policymakers. Finally, cybersecurity companies are at the forefront of conflict in this region, where we see continued growth from both political institutions and corporations.

Investment takeaways

Look at the trendlines, not just the headlines

 

There is really no way of knowing what the ultimate outcome of the Russian war will be. We need to rely on our read of market history, which suggests that the economic trajectory that existed before the shock will tend to continue. The exceptions happen when things such as energy price shocks precipitate a change in economic conditions. While that is clearly a risk this time, we think the U.S. economy can continue to power through higher energy prices.

Ultimately, we believe markets will be able to see the longer term and stabilize (see the experiences of COVID-19 or Brexit, or elections, or countless other geopolitical events through post–World War II history). While the violence in Eastern Europe will likely continue, investors should not forget to focus on the basics in order to make decisions: examining corporate earnings, inflation, central bank policy and interest rates. There will be volatility on the way, but fundamentals will prevail.

 

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All market and economic data as of March 2022 and sourced from Bloomberg and FactSet unless otherwise stated.

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