Major leaders were hopeful that Russia’s aggressions would be limited to the eastern section of Ukraine which was already predominantly controlled by Russian allies. That proved to be wrong and Putin is flexing his muscle, both militarily and financially, via Europe’s reliance on Russia for natural gas and many other commodities. Fighting against Russia via sanctions alone that have little bite is not helping matters so far. Real pain would come via shutting down pipelines, but many countries are still in the grips of winter weather and can ill afford to change infrastructure overnight in order to not depend on Russian gas. There is also chatter about taking them out of SWIFT, which is the cooperative that provides safe and secure financial transactions, but many oppose this as well. The proverbial rock and a hard place. Too many restrictions hurt European consumers both at home and in the pocketbook.
U.S. and some NATO allies continue to talk tough on more sanctions with respect to technology exports, big banks and specific individuals. None of this is going to be enough to slow Putin initially. Cyber strikes were also discussed but have never been implemented by the U.S. No U.S. military personnel will be deployed to fight for Ukraine, nor will we be firing rockets from any local bases. For now, Putin wants further control of Ukraine, and it looks like he will get it without much delay from a military perspective. A new Cold War may actually be upon us. That is the bear case.
Ancillary effects are real, especially from an inflation standpoint. Gas flow could still be impacted. Ukraine is a major supplier of many commodities like wheat, corn, steel, coal and many other necessary input items. They are the largest exporter of seed oils, like sunflower oil, and it is likely they will be disturbed over the coming days. Pair that with an already strained supply chain and more price increases will come. Oil broke over $100/barrel in response. Gas at our pumps will trek higher in the coming weeks. Wheat futures popped another 5% for a 21% gain in 2022 already. Russia (18%) and Ukraine (7%) account for 25% of global wheat exports. Egypt, Turkey and Bangladesh bought more than half of this supply. Similar action was seen in corn. This comes as growth is already slowing. Stagflation has a much higher chance of hitting Europe, if not the world, today.
History has shown us that “buy the rumor, sell the news” has proven to be effective. History has also shown us that by the time boots hit the ground, and missiles are launched or tanks come in, that stocks have mostly discounted these events. In fact, most “invasion” days mark bottoms in equity markets and prove to be buying opportunities. I can’t recall any of these happening with 7% inflation and following localized shutdowns impacting supply chains, but each period contained an excuse why this time is different.
When missiles started striking cities west of the initial invasion by Russia on Wednesday evening, stock market futures spiked lower. By the close of regular trading yesterday, markets finished higher, led by the Nasdaq’s +3.3% gain after a negative 3.5% open. Instead of defensive maneuvering, safety stocks were met with aggressive selling. Unilever, Philip Morris, Kraft Heinz, Kellogg’s, McCormick & Co, Campbell’s Soup and Hershey’s stock were all down over 3% yesterday. Even oil stocks couldn’t hold onto gains with declines across the board. Further talks about another release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve here in the States is expected, and is likely to be more impactful than the small move last time. Banks and financial related stocks slid, following the drop in interest rates, while a flight to safer U.S. bonds was prevalent. Gold stocks, which would normally enjoy chaos, suffered declines as well.
In another shocking turn of events, go-go growth stocks rebounded strongly. High P/E names like Salesforce#, Palo Alto Networks, ServiceNow, Adobe, Fortinet, CrowdStrike and Palantir were up 5% – 13%, after opening with declines of similar amounts. This is solid action for bulls. During corrections, the first to get hit (go-go growth) are the first to bottom. The leaders are the last to get hit (Staples, Mega-Cap). We caution, one day does not make a market, but score one for those trying to catch this falling knife. Reversal days like this are important in finding a floor.
While Putin may be today’s excuse for a decline, his actions are just one piece of the puzzle. Rapid inflation, elevated P/E’s, rising interest rates, lower Government handouts and tightening by the Federal Reserve are much more critical to the long-term outlook for our economy, stocks and interest rates. In that vein, we are still in a vacuum of limited visibility. If anything, Russian actions only add to the uncertainty, especially on the inflation front.
Fed Fund futures have already peeled back from 7 rate hikes this year. No amount of rate hikes will help increase the supply of oil, gas, corn, wheat, etc. A 50bps increase in March is off the table, but 25bps is still likely. In normal times, the Fed can look past commodity spikes stemming from geopolitical conflicts. Today that is nearly impossible considering the overall inflation picture. It will, however, give the Fed cover to go slower than markets were expecting. That’s good news for equities and P/E ratios. An aggressive Fed has historically been detrimental to growth and leads to inverted yield curves.
Whether that leads to stagflation, i.e. longer lasting inflation and no growth, is tough to determine right now. Markets expect Putin to stop short of Ukraine’s western borders that touch NATO allies, Romania and Poland especially. From an economic perspective, Ukraine does not mean too much. European actions agree. Rest assured, our thoughts are with the Ukrainians, who are feeling the brunt of this pain. Anything that gets this to a quick end, with low casualties and without massively disrupting supply chains, would be considered a positive at this point. Sanctions, political posturing and elevated forces could last a while. In fact, over time this will likely prove to be a bad move by Putin as sanctions will be felt for years to come. None of those should affect the P/E ratios for many U.S. listed stocks.
That all brings us towards mid-March, which is when the Fed will meet and discuss future plans. Data dependent just got a lot messier, but we should have some better vision going forward over the coming weeks. For now, nibbling on world-class operators with real earnings makes sense if one has excess cash. Sticking to your asset allocation is paramount. Chasing the high-flying growth stocks is still not without major risks. Know what you own. There is a big difference between buying a 15% EPS grower that trades at 15x earnings and a 20% grower that trades at 100x earnings!
Woo! Wrestling legend Ric Flair turns 73 today. Sean Astin from The Goonies is 51. Tea Leoni turns 56.
James Vogt, 610-260-2214