Crude soars, and stocks and crypto bomb lower, as fears of a Russia-Ukraine war consume global markets

February 22, 2022, 10:10 AM UTC

From Tokyo to Moscow to London, stock markets sank on Tuesday as the threat of Russian troops rolling across the border into eastern Ukraine became a distinct possibility overnight. The risk of war on the European continent also lifted safe havens gold and the dollar, and pushed Brent crude precariously close to $100 per barrel.

On cue, market analysts and economists tried to game out what comes next as any meaningful diplomatic efforts among Russia, the European Union, and the United States seem to be in turmoil.

“A Russian war against Ukraine would be a human tragedy and arguably the worst global security threat since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962,” Berenberg chief economist Holger Schmieding warned clients in an investor note this morning.

Likewise, investors were bracing for the worst.

The benchmark Stoxx Europe 600 traded down 0.8% at 4 a.m. ET, recouping steeper losses at the open. In Europe, there was just one stock sector in the green: energy. Pulling up the rear were auto, banks, travel and leisure, and tech stocks. U.S. futures were blinking a caution light as well, with the Dow Jones industrial average showing a drop of 350 points at the bell.

But the worst performers could be found in Russia.

Dogs of war

The Russian MOEX, the main exchange in Moscow, fell more than 7% at the open. It’s down more than 15% this week, and off nearly 40% since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the buildup of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine in November. Yesterday’s selloff in the MOEX was the worst since 2014 during the crisis in Crimea, which Russia ultimately invaded and annexed.

The Russian ruble, too, sank against the dollar this morning, and Sberbank, a bellwether Russian stock, was down nearly 10% as investors continue to pull their money out of Russia with volatility spiking.

Elsewhere, global tech stocks look set to take more flak from investors.Nasdaq 100 futures were off 2% midmorning. Tech stocks had been taking a beating even before tensions between Russia and the West deteriorated. Big names like PayPal, Twitter, and Facebook parent Meta are solidly in a bear market—you could even say “crash territory”—as investors shift out of growth stocks with markets uncertainty on the rise.

On Monday, Deutsche Bank thematic research strategist Jim Reid warned that geopolitical tensions of this magnitude tend to hit risk assets like equities hard. Based on historical data, he suggested the S&P 500 could be set for a swoon lasting about three weeks, trimming 6% to 8% off the benchmark index.

Crypto, too, is proving to be an unreliable safe haven. Bitcoin is flat this morning, trading around $37,000, but it’s off more than 8% since Friday. The rest of the crypto price board is awash in red as well.

“Bitcoin’s safe haven narrative has almost completely fallen apart as the rising possibility of military conflict and the worsening U.S.-Russia relationship puts the wider financial market in risk-aversion mode,” Midori Abe, a crypto analyst at Bitbank, said on Tuesday. She lowered her price range for Bitcoin to $32,000 to $43,000 as geopolitical tensions could cause more speculators to dump their holdings.

What’s up?

Crude, for one. Brent, the global benchmark, is closing in on $100 a barrel. It was trading at $99.19 at 4 a.m., or up more than 4% on the day—a huge gain by commodities standards. Gasoline futures were also climbing, as was natural gas. Analysts are baking in big price rises in crude should Russia give the green light to a full-scale invasion. Last week, J.P. Morgan analysts predicted oil prices could soar to $120 per barrel, and Goldman Sachs sees a double-digit surge in crude. The uncertainty clouding the energy markets: What happens if one of the world’s biggest oil exporters gets hit with sanctions?

“Russia’s economy is not that globally significant [around 3% of the world economy, or about half the size of California’s]. The main investor concern is energy,” explains UBS chief economist Paul Donovan. “Rising oil prices reflect a risk premium for possible future supply disruption. While an oil price spike may cause a temporary blip in inflation, economic disruption is more likely from oil prices that are higher for longer.”

Elsewhere, gold bugs could see big gains amidst the conflict. The shiny yellow stuff hit an eight-month high this morning, topping $1,900 an ounce.

With gold spiking, analysts are seeing a bearish shift in the making.

“The flight to safety is on, as long-end Treasury yields fall, gold rises, and the dollar spikes. We may have more downside risk over the coming weeks as markets react to headlines,” said Cliff Hodge, chief investment officer for Cornerstone Wealth. “But investors should put together their shopping list, as there are some interesting opportunities to begin to pick through the wreckage.”

Check out this Fortune must-read: “Tech investors are suffering the second stocks rout of the COVID pandemic—and Wall Street thinks it could get far worse”

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