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The markets are doing a lousy job (again) of predicting a ceasefire in Ukraine

March 30, 2022, 10:13 AM UTC

Good morning. Bernhard Warner here from Fortune‘s Rome bureau (picture an apartment block above a train line, but there’s great coffee), filling in for Alan.

Did the markets get ahead of reality with yesterday’s “peace” rally? Or, were investors spot-on in reading a positive first step in the Russia-Ukraine negotiations in Istanbul, one that could eventually lead to an end to the Kremlin’s brutal bombardment of its neighbor?

Before we answer that, let’s recap: The Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 rose Tuesday for a fourth straight day, with tech stocks leading the way higher. Investors cheered as oil prices fell again. Risk assets performed even better in Europe with the Europe Stoxx 600 closing at its highest level since Feb. 17. According to Deutsche Bank, the benchmark European index had recovered 13.9% between that day in mid-February and yesterday’s close.

And this morning? More skepticism abounds. A lot more. As the New York Times reports, diplomats and analysts in the West feel as if “Moscow seems in no hurry to end the war.”

The markets now seem to be reading that loud and clear. The European bourses were down across the board at the open this morning, wiping out a good chunk of yesterday’s gains after Bank of England deputy governor Ben Broadbent warned that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will inevitably create stagflationary conditions of higher inflation and lower growth.

U.S. futures also were edging lower, as there’s more chatter America is heading for recession. The U.S.’s troubles are more of the home-grown variety, however. While investors are feeling anxious about America’s short-term economic prospects, they are downright pessimistic about the economy further down the road. (If you hear market chatter today about yesterday’s brief “2s/10s inversion,” that’s the upshot of the argument.)

The reversal we’re seeing this morning in investor risk appetite is a good reminder—as if we needed one—that markets too often trade on incomplete information, and that just adds to the overall volatility. And whenever you have war or Putin involved, you can bet the information is anything but complete. Add it all up, and it’s probably not a great idea to take any war-and-peace cues from the markets.

As UBS chief economist Paul Donovan reminded clients this morning, “expertise in trading financial markets does not necessarily correlate to expertise in military matters; at this stage, market moves should be taken as volatility from trading headlines.”

I know. That’s a deeply unsatisfying answer from Donovan. So I won’t leave today’s markets wrap on that note. Instead, let’s go to another economist—Holger Schmieding or Berenberg Bank. If we’re looking for promising clues about a true de-escalation, Schmieding thinks we should focus our attention on places like Kyiv and Odessa. If, in a few weeks time, these regions “are less at risk than before,” he reckons, “the consequences could be significant.”

How significant? He sees three potential positive outcomes should relative calm persist in places like Kyiv, Odessa and a few other border regions close to Russia a month hence. They include:

1) No further sanctions against Moscow, and no move for a full EU embargo of Russian energy imports, “which would be costly for both sides.”

2) It would give Ukrainian farmers the cover to go ahead with the already-late spring planting, posing less of a disruption for Ukraine’s vital wheat and corn exports. The world cannot afford to see a major disruption of Ukrainian food exports.

3) Most importantly: a slowdown of refugees into the European Union.

On point 3, the situation is truly dire. The UNHCR reports that the invasion has forced 3.87 million Ukrainians to flee the country. This is the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II.

That’s the number your correspondent will be watching most closely. Not the ups and downs of the S&P.

Bernhard Warner


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This edition of CEO Daily was edited by Bernhard Warner.

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