5 Geopolitical Risks to Watch
Yet from the stock market’s recent moves, you could be forgiven for believing that all was well in the world. The S&P 500 is hovering near new all-time highs, and after a brief pause in July and early August, the bull market remains very much intact. The selloffs have been slightly more severe in some foreign markets, but overall stock investors are surprisingly complacent given the state of world affairs.
Let’s take a look at the world’s major flashpoints today and handicap any potential investment risks. We’ll also look for potential opportunities.
The biggest and potentially most disruptive geopolitical situation is the ongoing Russia/Ukraine standoff. On Thursday, Russia essentially opened a new front in the war along the coast of the Sea of Azoz, and it now appears that Russian soldiers are participating directly in the fighting rather than just providing hardware and logistical support. Allegedly, over 1,000 Russian troops now have boots on the ground in Ukrainian territory, and this came after the capture of ten Russian paratroopers in Ukraine earlier in the week.
Events in Ukraine are changing quickly. As recently as Tuesday, Presidents Putin and Poroshenko had met in person, and Poroshenko announced that a “roadmap” to end the fighting was on the verge of being prepared. And then two days later, the fighting actually escalates.
The truth is, no one really knows what is happening in Ukraine or what Putin’s endgame is. I doubt if Putin himself knows at this point. It looks to me like the “mini invasion” is an attempt to strengthen his hand at the negotiating table, but if this is the case, we’re not likely to see it reported on CNN.
We can be reasonably sure that the fighting will remain localized in Eastern Ukraine; were to Putin to lose his mind and order the invasion of a NATO country, I would expect him to be deposed in a coup.
What does this mean for our investment portfolios? As I recently wrote in Russian Countersanctions, the risk to most countries—even those with close ties to Russia, such as Germany—is vastly overstated. Individual companies that get a large percentage of their sales from Russia—such as Danish brewer Carlsberg(CABGY)—would have to be considered at risk. But it’s hard to see the Russia-Ukraine war having any sort of lasting impact on the broad market averages of the major western markets.
In Macro Trend Investor, I recommended a speculative position in the Market Vectors Russia ETF (RSX)in the belief that Russian stock prices were cheap enough to warrant a contrarian trade. I would reiterate that view here, but I would also advise you to be careful: Russian stocks promise to be volatile for as long as the standoff persists.
Where do I even start here. The war between Israel and Hamas appears to be over, at least for now, though Hamas’ leader vowed that it would not be the last. The Israel-Hamas conflict was costly for Israel and caused enormous damage in the Gaza Strip. But its damage was negligible outside of the immediate area of the conflict, and it had virtually no impact on the global markets. Even Israeli stocks, as measured by the iShares MSCI Israel ETF (EIS), are only down by about 5% from their July highs.
A far scarier development is the sudden rise of ISIS (also called “Islamic State”) in Iraq and Syria. The terror group has overwhelmed both the Iraqi army and the Kurdish militia—and I should emphasis that the Kurdish militia is an experienced guerilla force.
ISIS is wreaking havoc in the Middle East. But what are the implications for the markets?
The standard answer is that energy prices should spike, particularly given that the biggest energy exporter outside of the Middle East—Russia—is engulfed in a crisis of its own in Ukraine.
I wouldn’t bet on it. With much of Europe in recession and with U.S. production rising every day, oil and gas prices should be subdued for a long time to come.
The biggest risk in my view is that of domestic terrorism. At least two Americans have already been confirmed killed fighting for ISIS. If ISIS is effectively radicalizing Westerners to take up arms, then it may be just a matter of time before we have an act of terrorism at home. Should that happen, the effects on the markets would probably be short-lived. But let us hope we don’t have to find out.
ISIS could also be a problem for neighboring Turkey. But Turkey’s problems are mostly of the homegrown variety.
Former Prime Minister—and now President—Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged as the first democratically-elected president of the Turkish Republic. Previously, the president was selected by parliament, and the presidency was largely a ceremonial role not unlike that of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth. But Erdogan has big plans for the office and wants to change the role to something closer to the executive presidency of the U.S. or France.
In a vacuum, this wouldn’t be a problem. But Erdogan has become more and more authoritarian in recent years and has stopped respected constitutional niceties and the independence of Turkey’s courts and—critically—its central bank.
This is where the risk comes into play. Erdogan has effectively strong-armed the Turkish central bank into lowering interest rates even while inflation is heating up. Turkey also has one of the highest current account deficits in the world, meaning it needs a constant supply of foreign capital to keep its currency and economy afloat. Should investors get spooked by Erdogan’s increasingly lax attitude towards monetary sobriety, the lira could take a nosedive—and take the Turkish stock market with it.
I’m currently long the iShares MSCI Turkey ETF (TUR), and consider it a fantastic contrarian value play. But I’m not blind to the risks involved, and I would recommend that anyone investing in Turkish stocks have an exit plan in place in the event that the Turkish market crumbles.
Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff is not popular with investors; she’s developed a reputation of being hostile to business and—fairly or not—she has become a scapegoat for Brazil stagnating growth of late. The prospect of her losing the October election has been a factor in the recent strength of Brazilian stocks. TheiShares MSCI Brazil ETF (EWZ) is up about 11% in 2014 after losing more than half its value from its 2010 high. The ETF is still sitting at levels first seen in 2007.
Things just got a lot more complicated. Eduardo Campos—one of the strongest contenders in the presidential contest—was killed in a plane crash earlier this month. His replacement Marina Silva is polling well and has a good chance of beating Rousseff in an expected runoff election (a third candidate, Aecio Neve, is expected to pull enough votes to prevent any candidate from winning a majority in the first round).
The Brazilian market’s strength in the face of Silva’s popularity might seem a little strange at first given that, as the candidate of the Socialist Party, she is nominally further to the left of Rousseff. The market seems to be taking the view that anyone is preferable to ol’ Dilma.
Is there an investment theme here?
After six years of bear market conditions, Brazilian stocks are attractively priced. Likewise, the Brazilian real, while still overvalued according to The Economist’s Big Mac Index, is far less overvalued than it was four years ago. The presidential election might be the catalyst for the rally this year, but regardless of who wins the election, Brazilian stocks are priced to deliver very respectable returns.
Oh, Argentina. You’ve done it again. Argentina defaulted on its debt last month, the second time in 14 years.
Yet the situation is a little different this time around. When Argentina defaulted in 2001, the country was broke and lacked the means to pay. And the default rattled the global bond market, leaving a lot of bond investors nursing substantial losses.
This time around, the default is technical; Argentina has the money to pay and in fact duly paid the funds its owes into it trustee bank account. But the funds have been blocked by court order because of Argentina’s refusal to pay it “holdout” creditors—those investors who refused to accept the haircuts that came with Argentina’s debt restructurings in 2005 and 2010. The Argentine stock and bond markets have been remarkably quiet; there has been no panic or rush for the exits.
The legal mess continues to unwind. An investor group including George Soros and Kyle Bass (Trades, Portfolio) are suing the bond trustee in British court, arguing that the U.S. ban on payments is extraterritorial and illegal. We shall see.
I don’t see much in the way of fallout beyond Argentina’s borders should this dispute linger. Argentina has been a financial pariah state for so long that it has lost its ability to roil markets.
As for Argentine stocks, I would be on the lookout for bargains. YPF (YPF) is a fantastic play on Argentina’s vast oil and gas deposits for any investor with patience and a long time horizon. Should YPF see a significant price correction in the coming months, I would recommend using it as a buying opportunity.