Global markets tend to weaken as wars approach. However, global markets strengthen long before wars end. They also treat human calamity with remarkable indifference.
That’s been a common historical pattern, anyway. And, with some important caveats, it seems to be playing out with Russia’s latest aggression toward Ukraine.
Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin has already rattled the stock, bond, and commodity markets around world. On Tuesday, U.S. stocks stumbled, with the S&P 500 falling 1 percent, into what Wall Street calls a correction — a decline of least 10 percent from the most recent high.
The increasing conflict has changed the value of mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, and millions of retirement accounts, even for people with no interest in Eastern Europe or who have never invested in oil, gas, or other commodities.
Mr. Putin’s announcement on Sunday that he was recognizing the sovereignty of two Russian-dominated breakaway Ukrainian regions and ordering Russian troops represented a serious increase in the risks of a much wider war.
Where the conflict may be heading exactly isn’t clear, but the short-term market implications are. “The near-term consequences for markets are relatively simple,” said Claus Vistesen, chief eurozone economist for the research firm Pantheon Macroeconomics. “Energy prices will keep rising, and equities will keep falling.”
However, not all stocks have been falling. Rising oil and gas prices have bolstered the S&P 500’s energy sector, the best performer this year, with a return of 21.8 percent through Monday. This happened despite the 8.8 percent drop in the overall stock market index, which serves as a proxy.
The S&P 500 is led by energy companies such as Schlumberger, Occidental Petroleum, and Halliburton. American investors also have nearly $140 trillion in commodity E.T.F.s. Mostly, they are focused on energy like the $35 billion Energy Select SPDR Fund which has returned 23.4 per cent through Monday.
The stock market has been plagued by multiple problems: rising interest rates, sizzling inflation and continued supply-chain bottlenecks. Russian threats to Ukraine could further whipsaw the stock market.
Even so, long-term investors with well-diversified portfolios of stocks and high-quality bonds — whether held directly or through low-cost mutual funds and exchange-traded funds — will probably be able to ride out this crisis, as they have so many others.
Stocks may fall in times of global turmoil, but U.S. Treasury bond prices tend to rise as investors look for safe havens. Because yields and bond prices move in opposite directions, Treasuries’ value has declined this year due to rising interest rates. However, they can provide a short-term buffer to portfolios that contain them in the event of a major stock decline.
Long-term, riding out a storm in stock market has been a successful strategy. The S&P 500 gained fifteen percent one year after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. It was up 35% a year after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States. History shows that just one year after most stock-market-shattering crises, the S&P 500 stock index has risen.
The stock exchange during the Cold War
The Russian hostilities in Ukraine may be the beginning of something bigger: a geopolitical shift which plunges the world into a 21st century version of the Cold War. But even if that’s the case, the hard numbers suggest that the financial implications for prudent, diversified investors who live far from immediate danger zones may not be all that severe.
While the Cold War was devastation and debilitating for large populations, it was a good period for stock-investors. Even in recessions and wars regionally, the Dow Jones industrial average maintained a remarkable performance.
Here are the numbers, which I calculated over the long Presidents’ Day weekend:
From President Truman’s March 17, 1948, speech to Congress criticizing what he called the Soviet Union’s expansion of Communism in Eastern Europe, until Dec. 31, 1991, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, the Dow returned 10.05 percent, annualized. Through Friday, the Dow has returned 10.77% annually over the past 30 years. That’s a bit more than it did during the Cold War but not by much.
The immediate market effect
Oil is now at $100 per barrel, up from $65 a year earlier. It is possible that it will soar higher, particularly if Russia launches a full-scale invasion and faces severe financial sanctions by the United States.