Over the next three weeks, equities will likely trade in a wide range. The caveat to that forecast: if the Fed suddenly changes policy, or if a shooting war erupts in Ukraine. Those are two big ifs. Unfortunately, I can neither forecast when or what the next Fed head will say, nor predict Vladimir Putin’s next move.
The next Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting occurs in mid-March. The latest CPI and PPI inflation data show inflation accelerating at a rate much higher than economists and the Fed expected. It is all but certain, according to the bond market vigilantes, that the Federal Reserve Bank will raise interest rates at that time. As such, it is only a question of whether the rate increase will be a 25 or 50 basis point hike.
That will be only part of the equation. Investors will be expecting Chairman Jerome Powell to give them more insight as to how many rate hikes they can expect going forward, and what other monetary tightening the Fed will be planning as well. The risk will be that the equity market could swoon and test the lows if the Fed is perceived as more hawkish on tightening than expected.
In the meantime, we have plenty to occupy our attention. This week, the market’s interest rate worries have been superseded by Russia’s intentions toward Ukraine. Thus far, the conflict has been played out in the media in a “he said, she said” war of charges and counter charges.
War is never a good thing, suffice it to say. Besides the human costs of such a conflict, there would also be an economic price to pay. The sanctions that the U.S. and its allies are prepared to inflict on Russia in response to perceived aggression would inflict damage on the global economy and on the U.S. as well.
Russia supplies a great deal of the commodities that the rest of the world consumes. Sanctions could immediately cause substantial price spikes in commodities such as oil, gas, and coal. Russia is also a major exporter of rare earth minerals and heavy metals. One third of the world’s supply of palladium (used in catalytic converters), for example, and titanium (think aircraft) is also mined and exported by Russia.
Ukraine is also a major source of neon, an essential input in the manufacturing of many semiconductors. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest producers of wheat, as well as fertilizers (as is Russia). Hostilities could damage their ability to export or even harvest the nation’s wheat supply.
I would expect price spikes in several food commodities as a result. That would add fuel to the inflation fire and could force the Fed to become even more aggressive in raising interest rates. It would not be a pretty picture for stock market investors.
To be honest, no one knows whether Russia is bluffing or serious about invasion as a next step. For me, a telltale sign of their intent would be any movement of medical facilities and supplies forward to the troop staging areas and border with Ukraine. This week, I have seen just that.
The risk is obvious. A shooting war would probably see the S&P 500 Index re-test the lows (4,222) of January 24, 2022. Geopolitical events usually have a limited impact on the stock market, unless the hostilities are protracted and far-reaching. If, on the other hand, a negotiated settlement was to occur, markets would likely fly higher. That “if” word is going to keep investors jumpy and prices in a box with every headline capable of moving markets 1-2% up or down.