Global markets often weaken when wars approach. They are strong long before wars cease and treat human disasters with incredible 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 rattled commodity, bond and stock markets around the globe. 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 shifted the value mutual funds and exchange traded funds in millions retirement accounts, even for those who have not thought deeply or invested in oil, natural gas, or any 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 was despite the 8.8 percent decline in the overall index, which is often used as a proxy for all stocks markets.
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.
However, the stock market has been affected by multiple problems including rising interest rates and soaring inflation. There are also ongoing supply-chain issues. The Russian threats to Ukraine will likely whipsaw the market even more.
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. Since yields and bond prices tend to move in opposite direction, Treasuries are seeing a decline in value this year, as interest rates have risen. They can be a short-term buffer in the event of a stock market downturn.
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 market during 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.
Although the Cold War was devastating and debilitating to large populations, it was a great 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. The Dow has returned 10.77 percent annually in the 30 years since then. This is a little better than the Cold War, but not much.
The immediate market effect
Oil prices are already high. They are now close to $100 per barrel, up from $65 last year. It is likely that it will rise further, especially if Russia invades the country and then faces severe financial sanctions from the United States.