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Market Extra: What war in Ukraine would mean for markets as Putin orders Russian troops to separatist regions

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Markets calmed somewhat early Tuesday, but investors were expected to remain on edge as they monitored escalating tensions over Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday said he would recognize the independence of two Russian-led breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine and ordered troops to the separatist territory, moves that were expected to result in additional sanctions against Moscow and stoked fears that a full-scale invasion could soon take place.

Western leaders “will see this as the crossing of a clear red line…bringing closer the point at which the sanctions hammer will fall,” said Claus Vistesen, chief eurozone economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, in a Monday note. “If it does, it will fall hard, sending energy prices higher and equities lower.”

U.S. markets were closed Monday for the Presidents Day holiday. Asian stocks fell for a second day Tuesday, while European equities were mostly lower after losing ground Monday. U.S. stock-index futures fell but trimmed sharp losses seen Monday night. Dow futures
YM00,
-0.19%

were down 151 points, or 0.4%, while S&P 500 futures
ES00,
-0.13%

were also down 0.4%.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note
TMUBMUSD10Y,
1.944%

was at 1.938%, up slightly from 1.93% on Friday afternoon. Yields, which move in the opposite direction of price, fell last week as Ukraine worries saw investors buy traditional safe havens.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday said Berlin had taken steps to halt the process of certifying the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia.

The White House on Monday night issued an executive order restricting investment and trade in those regions, while additional measures — likely sanctions — were expected to be announced Tuesday. Those sanctions would be separate from what the administration had prepared in the event of a Russian invasion, the Associated Press reported, citing a senior administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

Headline-driven volatility

U.S. investors may have been reluctant to hold on to assets perceived as risky heading into a three-day holiday weekend.

Read: Here’s the technology being used to watch Russian troops as Ukraine invasion fears linger

U.S. stocks on Friday logged weekly losses for the second week in a row, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average
DJIA,
-0.68%

falling 1.9%, the S&P 500
SPX,
-0.72%

losing 1.6% and the Nasdaq Composite
COMP,
-1.23%

declining 1.8%. Treasury yields
TMUBMUSD10Y,
1.944%

fell as investors sought out assets viewed as havens during periods of geopolitical uncertainty and the desire for safety also lifted gold
GC00,
-0.14%
.

Oil last week failed to get a lift from Ukraine tensions, though invasion fears were credited the previous week for driving both the U.S.
CL.1,
+3.68%

CL00,
+3.77%

and global
BRN00,
+2.74%

benchmarks to seven-year highs not far below the $100-a-barrel threshold. Instead, prospects of a revived Iran nuclear accord, which could eventually lift U.S. sanctions on the country’s crude exports, prompted profit-taking as crude futures ended a streak of eight weekly gains.

Brent crude,
BRN00,
+2.74%
,
the global benchmark, rose 2% Monday to settle at $95.39 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe, then extended gains in electronic trade to come within 50 cents of the $100-a-barrel threshold. Brent was up 2.4% in recent action at $97.70 a barrel.

The U.S. benchmark was up 3.5% at $94.28 a barrel. Gold, a traditional safe haven, built on gains scored last week, rising in electronic trade to a level last seen in January 2021.

Energy shock?

So what happens if the situation on the ground in Ukraine continues to escalate?

For investors, the focus would be on energy prices, with analysts warning that crude oil remains likely to shoot above $100 a barrel.

“Biden remains adamant that Ukraine will be defended, and that sanctions such as blocking energy sales will be deployed as a counter to Russia’s militant action. With oil prices already at multiyear highs due to misaligned supply/demand dynamics, further tension could mean more upside potentially (north of $100) that could negatively impact both the U.S. and global economy,” said Larry Adam, chief investment officer for the Private Client Group at Raymond James, in a Friday note.

“While we remain optimistic that a diplomatic resolution and/or de-escalation (base case) will ultimately result, this is not a certainty with tensions high. A favorable outcome would reduce the current geopolitical risk premium built into oil prices (at least $5-$10) and return oil closer to our year-end target of $80,” he wrote.

Beyond crude oil, Russia’s role as a key supplier of natural gas to Western Europe could send prices in the region soaring. Overall, spiking energy prices in Europe and around the world would be the most likely way a Russian invasion would stoke volatility across financial markets, analysts said.

Bread basket

Not everyone is convinced significant supply disruptions, particularly for crude oil, would be inevitable.

“We suspect that neither the West or Russia has much appetite for curtailing the trade in energy, and that prices could fall back fairly swiftly,” wrote commodities analysts at Capital Economics, in a note.

“By contrast, the West has sanctioned Russia’s metal producers before and, with most of Russia’s grain exports leaving from Black Sea ports, the risk of supply disruption there is high,” they said.

Indeed, analysts have warned that wheat prices
W00,
+2.33%
,
in particular, could see further gains in the event of an invasion. Both Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of the grain. Wheat was up 2.3% after jumping to a nearly one-month high, while
C00,
+1.15%

and soybean futures
S00,
+0.89%

also rallied.

In depth: Why the Russia-Ukraine crisis may make food-price inflation even worse

Stocks and geopolitics

For the most part, equity analysts continue to play down the potential for a Ukraine conflict to have more than a passing impact on U.S. equities.

Despite near-term volatility in the wake of geopolitical events over the past three decades, ranging from terrorist attacks to the start of wars, stocks have tended to bounce back relatively quickly, Adam noted, rallying 4.6% on average in the six months following such crises dating back to 1990 and rising 81% of the time.

“In general, Fed policy and economic conditions tend be the more long-term drivers of the economy and financial markets rather than isolated geopolitical events,” he said.

Still the economic and market ramifications of an invasion “may pose a near-term downside risk to the global economy and cause market volatility to persist,” he said.

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