All eyes are on Ukraine as the drama continues to unfold. Today, for an early Outside the Box, I’m going to offer three sources on Ukraine. The first is a note that I got from the head of emerging-market trading at one of the world’s largest hedge funds. This is what he sent out last week, ahead of any real action:
My view, Putin is stuck now, cannot easily de-escalate. Further escalation is a possibility, with Ukraine cracking along the obvious ethnic fault lines and the West reacting with measures such as sanctions and visa restrictions. Tit-for-tat follows; gas supplies to the EU are disrupted. Russian capital outflows accelerate and the RUB [ruble] quickly gets to 40/$, fuelling inflation and unnerving the Russian banking system, and also infecting the European banking system, in the manner that Chris Watling has envisaged. Meanwhile, the Chinese liabilities residing inside the European banking system are also in trouble, of course, and will continue to deteriorate. The CBR [Central Bank of Russia] hikes repeatedly with very little effect on slowing the RUB slide, further hurting GDP growth and economically sensitive segments of the market. The Russian RTX index revisits the GFC lows of 2008, Gazprom ADR's are already within shouting distance of their 2008 lows today. In such a scenario, there is an obvious risk of market contagion spreading throughout Eastern and Western Europe, and in fact the rest of the world. It is likely to resemble something on the order of the 1998 LTCM + RUB collapse + Asian financial crisis magnitude. In fact, a number of hedge funds will fail precisely because they have loaded up so heavily with European debt instruments which will unravel.
Meanwhile, politically, the US ends up looking weaker and weaker, and getting less and less respect internationally. The US-Russia confrontation is taking place under the critical gaze of the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Hizballah in Lebanon.
They are seeing the following:
President Obama is now seen backing off a commitment to US allies for the second time in eight months. They remember his U-turn last August on US military intervention for the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons. They also see Washington shying off from Russia's clear and present use of military force and therefore concluding that Washington is not a reliable partner for safeguarding their national security.
The Middle East governments and groups which opted to cooperate recently with Vladimir Putin – Damascus, Tehran, Hizballah and Egypt – are ending up on the strong side of the regional equation. Others such as Turkey and Qatar are squirming.
American weakness on the global front has strengthened the Iranian-Syrian bloc and its ties with Hizballah. Assad is going nowhere.
Putin standing behind Iran is a serious obstacle to a negotiated and acceptable comprehensive agreement with Iran, just as the international EU- and US-led bid for a political resolution of the Syrian conflict foundered last month, and now is unlikely to ever be revisited.
Notice what he said about European banks. Their exposure to emerging-market corporate debt, Chinese debt, and Russian liabilities is going to weaken their balance sheets just as the European central bank stress test will be kicking off.
This is going to be a very interesting period of time and potentially quite dangerous. Very few people saw US market vulnerabilities in early 1998 coming from outside the US. As I said in my 2014 forecast, the United States should be all right until there is a shock to the system. We have to be aware of what can cause shocks. Ukraine in and of itself might not be enough, but notice that the Chinese are preparing to slow their economy down as part of the process of reducing their dependency on bank debt and foreign direct investment in construction and other projects. China has been one of the main engines of global growth, so a slowdown will have effects. It’s all connected, as I wrote in the 2007 letter we reprinted this weekend.
I should note that other very savvy investors and managers think there will be no contagion from current events. That’s what makes a market. It’s why we need to pay attention to Ukraine.
In the second part of today’s Outside the Box we visit a short essay on Ukraine by Anatole Kaletsky, which talks about timing investments during market crises:
Financial markets cannot afford to be so sentimental. While we should always recall at a time like this the famous advice from Nathan Rothschild to “buy at the sound of gunfire,” the drastically risk-off response to weekend events in Ukraine makes perfect sense because Russia’s annexation of Crimea is the most dangerous geopolitical event of the post-Cold War era, and perhaps since the Cuban Missile crisis. It can result in only two possible outcomes, either of which will be damaging to European stability in the long-term.
Finally, I got a piece on Ukraine from my friend Ian Bremmer, who says, “[W]e are witnessing the most seismic geopolitical event since 9/11.” His analysis plus background data help us understand what is really going on in Ukraine.
Ian will be at my conference in San Diego, May 13-16, and you should be too. If you don’t have a plan for dealing with what happens when the midterm forecasts begin knocking on the door, you won’t know what to do when the time comes. Our conference offers a wonderful opportunity to bring your plans into focus and perhaps make a few new ones. You can find out more here.
I’m feeling a lot better today than I did this weekend. I am stuck in Miami due to the cancellation of my flight but hope to be able to get to Washington DC tomorrow morning to experience the East Coast version of the polar vortex. But, for the nonce, I guess I will be forced to sit outside at the pool or on the beach and continue my research, which is once again stacking up. You have to love iPads, which are for me great productivity enhancers. I did finish George Gilder’s brilliant must-read book Knowledge and Power this weekend, and I highly recommend it. And I suppose I should research the gym facilities here later this afternoon. I have mastered the trick of reading on my iPad while walking on the treadmill. No excuses. Have a great week.
Your enjoying the Miami weather analyst,
John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
Realpolitik In Ukraine
By Anatole Kaletsky, Gavekal
Oscar Wilde described marriage as the triumph of imagination over intelligence and second marriage as the triumph of hope over experience. In finance and geopolitics, by contrast, experience must always prevail over hope and realism over wishful thinking. A grim case in point is the Russian incursion into Ukraine. What makes this confrontation so dangerous is that US and EU policy seems to be motivated…