So far, financial markets have failed to recognize the potential long-term seriousness of the situation in Ukraine. I suspect this may be because very few investors remember the Cold War period, and therefore, may not always place current events into a historical context. Many feel that having annexed Crimea, President Putin is satisfied with his lot and will not invade Ukraine. If history is our guide, this may be only the beginning of this crisis. It is worth remembering the initial feeling of relief in the United Kingdom after the signing of the Munich Agreement in the fall of 1938.
The belief that the situation will not get much worse is predicated on the notion that all political players ultimately act in the best economic interests of their country. The argument goes that in light of the inevitable sanctions and international isolation that would follow, Putin would not dare advance into eastern Ukraine. However, considering the strategic importance of controlling Ukraine, it can be argued that Putin is in fact acting in the long-term best interests of Russia and would be willing to suffer some short-term pain.
So what does this mean for markets? In the short-term, any "risk-off" trade in Europe will likely be positive for U.S. assets, particularly bonds. I expect to see more capital flow into the United States as a result of this ongoing conflict. Events could also slow the ongoing European economic recovery, stemming perhaps from the potential disruption to gas supplies, although it is unlikely to derail the expansion on the continent. Longer term, heightened aggression from Russia could reduce the pressure to cut the U.S. defense budget.
Heightened Tensions over Ukraine Would Hurt but Not Derail Europe
As the conflict in Ukraine drags on, the probability of more severe sanctions on Russia is increasing. Such sanctions could send Russia into a recession, but the impact would also be felt in Europe. In addition to potential disruptions to natural gas flows, it is likely that European exports and financial activity in Russia could fall, whether due to sanctions or to decreased Russian demand. Though not a substantial portion of European economies in aggregate, Russian exposure is meaningful in countries, such as Austria and the Netherlands. Germany's trade linkages are also heavier than many other European countries, which may explain its reluctance to apply tighter sanctions.
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