Watching Russia’s horrifying invasion of Ukraine unfold, I was reminded of one of Winston Churchill’s famous quotes:
“The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy, but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”
It seems that Vladimir Putin and the Russian military are learning this lesson, but so too unfortunately are the people of Ukraine. Our hearts go out to all those who are suffering as a result of this senseless conflict – the human tragedy must remain uppermost in our thoughts.
Having said that, Churchill’s words also have salience for investors who worry their portfolio may sustain collateral damage from this war.
While the invasion does appear to mark a geopolitical inflection point on a scale not seen since the 9/11 attacks, the consequences for the economy and capital markets remain – in Churchill’s phrase – unforeseeable and uncontrollable.
The invasion has added a huge new element of uncertainty to the global economy that could reverberate for months and even years to come. Right now, markets are trying to digest the potential impact, especially for corporate profits.
Clearly, there will be an impact. Some 400 corporations, including some of the largest names in the world, have announced they will pull out of Russia. Heightened uncertainty and lower profits would normally lead to lower stock prices.
Yet, the reaction in the markets has so far been remarkably muted. While it’s true the U.S. market has entered correction territory, having lost 10.3% this year through March 15, the decline started well before the invasion on February 24. The S&P 500 was already down 11.3% on February 23. So, the U.S. market actually gained 1% during the first three weeks of war.
It’s a similar story in Europe, which being closer to Ukraine, you would expect to be more heavily affected. The FTSE Europe Index is down 9.5% for the year, but just 0.6% since the war started.
The Canadian market has actually been a beneficiary of the Russian invasion. It was up 0.3% for the year, as of March 15, thanks to a 28% rally in energy stocks in response to a surge in global oil prices.
So, the war’s impact on the markets—at least for now—is far less than you would have expected if you had based your judgment solely on dire predictions emanating from the financial media.
While the long build-up to war was probably reflected in lower stock prices before the actual start of the invasion, there were many other factors weighing on the markets. Importantly, investors were faced with much higher inflation and the prospect of higher interest rates.
The media had been focused on that bad news before turning its attention to the war. Meanwhile, it gave short shrift to all the good news on the other side of the balance. This includes strong GDP and job growth, record corporate earnings and the reopening of the economy from pandemic restrictions.
So, what to make of all these developments? Well, there’s the evergreen lesson that the media might be a good source of information and entertainment but is a terrible guide for making investment decisions.
More importantly, we are seeing another proof of just how impossible it is to predict how an event like war will affect the economy or the markets.
In this wonderful article, journalist Robin Power put it this way:
“We crave certainty. We want to be authors of our own destiny. And we shrink from the notion that, to a large extent, our lives are governed by luck — both good and bad — and simple random chance. Everything seems so obvious with the benefit of hindsight. But history happens in real time, and nobody knows — not even the generals or political leaders directly involved — how events will unfold from one day to the next.”
Powell’s advice for how investors should react to the invasion of Ukraine?
“The vast majority of investors, and certainly those with a proper financial plan in place, should do precisely nothing.”
We agree. When we’re asked what we are doing in response to events like the war, we answer: Sticking with the plan. Indeed, risk management is about engineering portfolios to cope with periods of high volatility before they occur.
Volatility comes in many forms and from many sources and that’s the exact reason why you get higher returns for investing in equities. You get paid to take risk, but you must be ready to deal with volatility before it comes. You do it with a portfolio that is broadly diversified across asset classes and geographies.
Then, it’s a question of staying the course and resisting the urge to trade when the headlines are scary. That’s simple but not easy. It takes discipline and why it’s so important to have a long-term plan to rely on at times like this.