Ukraine's Fog of War and Stock's Volatility

A look at the latest developments in Ukraine.

In our view, filtering information is one of investors’ most important tasks. It can be hard enough in the best of times, but right now, the fog of war appears to be making it all but impossible—and we aren’t talking about the myriad reports of fake images and video footage coming out of Russia and Ukraine. The fog also appears to be engulfing a lot of reporting from economic commentators we follow, potentially obscuring a clear assessment of developments’ impacts over the weekend and on Monday and stoking a lot of this time is different-style commentary.[i] But as tough as it may be to see, we don’t think much has changed for investors since our discussion of sanctions late last week. In our view, the latest measures still don’t inflict enough damage to knock a few trillion pounds off of markets—which we think is the amount needed to wallop global markets into a bear market (a prolonged, fundamentally driven, broad equity market decline of -20% or worse).

Yes, we know the US, UK and EU agreed to expel some Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) network, which facilitates international financial transactions.[ii] We know this theoretically complicates Russian banks' transacting with the developed world, effectively freezing commerce and overseas assets even for entities that aren’t under sanctions.[iii] And we know several Western leaders have referred to this, however unfortunately, as the “nuclear option.”[iv] Now they are patting themselves on the back, promising their actions will create a deep Russian recession (a broad decline in economic activity).[v]

Our response: perhaps. But we think there are reasons to doubt this outcome will be so clear. That isn’t an ideological statement, mind you, nor a political one. Rather, our job is to assess these things coolly and rationally, as markets do. Those we have seen argue the SWIFT expulsion will kneecap Russia’s economy point to the deep economic pain in Iran after US sanctions effectively barred all Iranian banks from SWIFT.[vi] Thing is, those sanctions included measures targeting Iran’s oil and gas exports, which is what actually crippled Iran’s economy.[vii] So far, the West has done no such thing to Russia—the SWIFT ejection applies only to some (heretofore unspecified) banks, meaning there are other banks that still have access and can process oil and gas transactions.[viii] Some officials told the press Monday that they are doing so to avoid interfering with the oil trade.[ix]

It probably goes without saying that this is to ensure Russian oil and gas continues flowing to Continental Europe, which relies on that supply.[x] But it also ensures the source of half of Russia’s government revenues is alive and well, which we think likely limits a lot of the potential economic damage.[xi] Beyond that, SWIFT isn’t technically a money transfer system; rather, it is a messaging system. Messages accompany wire transfers, a key component in informing the receiving bank of the intended recipient and other important information. SWIFT is overwhelmingly the most commonly used messaging system globally.[xii] But it isn’t the only game in town. To maintain access to international markets, Russian banks could use antiquated analog technology like Telex—the customer-to-customer switched network of teleprinters similar to a telephone network, using telegraph-grade connecting circuits for two-way text-based messages.[xiii] Or they could use Russia’s relatively new SWIFT alternative, enabling them to use banks in China and elsewhere as conduits.[xiv] Our historical analysis shows there will always be nations willing to help a pariah state skirt sanctions for a small fee, limiting both their influence and economic impact. 

In our view, the fine print is also likely to render the weekend’s other big measure much weaker than advertised: the ban on transacting with Russia’s monetary policy institution.[xv] The idea seems to be that doing so strands Russia’s huge foreign currency reserve war chest abroad, so that the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) can’t use it to prop up the rouble. Propping the rouble would require the CBR to sell its foreign currency assets and buy roubles on the international market with the proceeds, which is now theoretically off the table. According to financial commentators we follow, this, too, will allegedly trigger a Russian currency collapse, bank run and deep recession.[xvi]

That is a possible outcome, in our view. But is it likely? Due to Europe’s aforementioned reliance on Russian fossil fuels, there is an exemption for all entities processing payments for imported Russian oil and gas.[xvii] That means Russia likely doesn’t need to repatriate its overseas assets to get the hard currency necessary to stabilise the rouble. It can just sell a massive amount of oil and gas, then convert the euros and dollars it receives as payment to roubles—through a third-party nation, if need be. Incidentally, we think this argues against oil and natural gas prices soaring from here. If anything, we think Russia’s need for hard currency could motivate it to ramp up supply, helping prices stabilise.

Another thing: Russia has diversified its foreign currency holdings significantly in recent years.[xviii] Russia’s US Treasury holdings have gone from over $100 billion (£75 billion) in 2017 to too small to report by 2020.[xix] The dollar was about 46% of its war chest in 2017, according to the CBR’s data.[xx] As of last June, the latest figure available, it was down to 16%.[xxi] It could be lower still by now, if the CBR took pre-emptive measures ahead of the long-planned invasion. Meanwhile, the yuan is now 13% of its reserves, and gold is up to 22%.[xxii] Between the diversified reserves and the steady incoming stream of hard currency as payment for energy, we think Russia probably has more firepower than most financial commentators we follow suggest.

It is true that markets had a sharply negative reaction to this weekend’s developments.[xxiii] Russia’s stock market was closed on Monday and Tuesday, but Russian companies listed on the London Stock Exchange tanked on Monday. [xxiv] So did the rouble, although the CBR’s huge interest rate hike seemed to stabilise it at least temporarily.[xxv] Yet we think it is important to be very, very careful about extrapolating one day’s market movement into a financial crisis. As we take a step back to think this through, we have a hard time seeing why the partial SWIFT ejection or foreign exchange freeze would trigger a serious bank run—like, the actual Panic of 1907 kind of bank run, not a few dozen people in line at a cash machine because they read a scary article.[xxvi] Neither factor technically affects domestic banking transactions. Russia’s economy isn’t reliant on US dollars.[xxvii] The CBR can provide unlimited liquidity in roubles if need be. We aren’t arguing this will be painless, but we think those claiming a bank run will bring Putin’s downfall and the war’s end may be carrying things too far—not least because they are perhaps being a bit too naïve, in our view, about who would take over.

In our experience, every stock market correction (sharp, sentiment-fuelled drop of -10% to -20%) has a this time is different scare story. That tone and narrative is why people seemingly have such a hard time staying cool and rational and understanding market history can be a useful guide. When the stories are laced with wartime propaganda, it is probably significantly more difficult, in our view. For investors, we think it is vital to take a deep breath and calmly analyse the situation and read the fine print. In our view, it is most beneficial and wise to leave feelings out and assess the facts. In this case, we think the facts support our opinion that this conflict remains too geographically limited, and the major players too small economically, to wallop global markets.

[i] “Russia-Ukraine War: What to Know on Day 6 of Russian Assault,” Staff, Associated Press, 1/3/2022.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] “What is SWIFT and Why It’s Being Called the ‘Nuclear’ Option for Russian Sanctions,” Staff, ABC News, 26/2/2022. Accessed through MSN.

[v] “Russia’s Economy is Poised to Plunge Into Recession, Warns JPMorgan,” Brian Sozzi, Yahoo! Finance, 28/2/2022.

[vi] “Five Lessons Learned From Sanctions on Iran for the Ukraine Crisis,” Saeed Ghasseminejad and Behnam Ben Taleblu, The National Interest, 1/3/2022.

[vii] “Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012,” United States Congress, 10/8/2012, and the Central Bank of Iran, 10/8/2012 – 14/7/2015.

[viii] “Russia-Ukraine War: What to Know on Day 6 of Russian Assault,” Staff, Associated Press, 1/3/2022.

[ix] “Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on New Economic Restrictive Measures on Russia,” The United States White House Briefing Room, 28/2/2022.

[x] Source: Directorate-General for Energy for the EU, as of 1/3/2022.

[xi] “Why Russian Invasion Peril Is Driving Oil Prices Near $100,” Christopher M. Matthews and Collin Eaton, The Wall Street Journal accessed via Mint.com, 14/2/2022.

[xii] “What is SWIFT and Why It’s Being Called the ‘Nuclear’ Option for Russian Sanctions,” Staff, ABC News, 26/2/2022. Accessed through MSN.

[xiii] Source: Telex, as of 1/3/2022.

[xiv] “Factbox: What is China’s Onshore Yan Clearing and Settlement System CIPS?,” Staff, Reuters, 27/2/2022.

[xv] “Russia-Ukraine War: What to Know on Day 6 of Russian Assault,” Staff, Associated Press, 1/3/2022.

[xvi] “Russia’s Economy is Poised to Plunge Into Recession, Warns JPMorgan,” Brian Sozzi, Yahoo! Finance, 28/2/2022.

[xvii] “Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on New Economic Restrictive Measures on Russia,” The United States White House Briefing Room, 28/2/2022.

[xviii] Source: Central Bank of Russia, as of 1/3/2022.

[xix] Source: US Treasury, as of 28/2/2022.

[xx] Source: Central Bank of Russia, as of 28/2/2022.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Source: FactSet, as of 1/3/2022. MSCI World Index return with net dividends, 25/2/2022 – 28/2/2022.

[xxiv] Source: MOEX Russia Index and London Stock Exchange, 25/2/2022 – 28/2/2022.

[xxv] Source: Central Bank of Russia, as of 1/3/2022.

[xxvi] “The Panic of 1907,” Jon R. Moen and Ellis W. Tallman, The US Federal Reserve, as of 4/12/2015.

[xxvii] Source: Central Bank of Russia, as of 1/3/2022.

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