What Rising Turmoil in Ukraine Would Mean for Stocks

Last week, I wrote that markets aren’t likely to react to events in Ukrainewithout a significant escalation in violence or clear evidence linking the events to the global economy, such as a disruption of oil or gas markets.

We got more evidence of that this week. While investors generally sold off higher-risk assets last week as tension mounted, stocks pushed ahead on Monday despite Crimea’s vote to secede from Ukraine and the imposition of sanctions on Russia from the West.

That said, last week’s market downturn does raise the question of how vulnerable stocks might be if the turmoil escalates. While I continue to believe the long-term prospects for equities remain sound, volatility across financial markets is still relatively low.

Additionally, stock prices are close to their all-time highs, which suggests they are not factoring in a lot of bad news. As such, as I write in my new weekly commentary, should the situation in Ukraine deteriorate, stocks could be vulnerable in the near term.

As for which market segments would be most vulnerable should the situation deteriorate further, two are particularly at risk:

European Equities. While I currently remain overweight eurozone stocks for a number of reasons, European stocks would be vulnerable if the situation in neighboring Ukraine worsens. Europe imports roughly 30% of its natural gas from Russia. Should Russia and the West engage in a tit-for-tat series of sanctions, Russia could decide to interrupt some or all of Europe’s gas supply. Though I’m not expecting this to occur, it would have a significant impact on Europe’s already fragile recovery and hurt European equities.

Consumer Sector Stocks. Events in Crimea have little direct impact on the U.S. economy, but rising geopolitical risk undermines an already nervous consumer. In fact, it doesn’t help matters that the turmoil in Ukraine is occurring at the same time that U.S. consumer confidence is already weakening. While the economy is improving, consumer confidence remains fragile.

Weak consumer confidence is a key reason why retail spending remains lackluster and why retail sales are growing at the slowest pace since late 2009. As such, I would be concerned about consumer discretionary and consumer staples stocks, which are down year-to-date and are trailing the broader market, but are still expensive.

So what’s my outlook for what will happen in Ukraine? At this point, it appears likely that tension and turmoil will persist as a solution to the standoff in Crimea is eluding politicians. But while the situation in Ukraine is fast moving and highly fluid, the prospect of mounting tension is real.

Source: Bloomberg, BlackRock research

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