“Alas, that these evil days should be mine...”
Trying to strip out noise from facts has never been so complex! It’s time to resort to the rarest of all commodities; Common Sense – to work out how this will likely play out. There will be clear winners – and one massive loser – and significant economic pain before we get there.
At times like this its worth recalling two of my most overused market mantras:
The market has but one objective – to inflict the maximum amount of pain on the maximum number of participants, and
Things are never as bad as you fear – but never as good as you hope.
After that quick reminder of short, sharp and contradictory market common sense… what are markets telling us this morning? My opening bid for Chelski is £1 and give it to the fans… even if Chelsea supporters are definitionally delusional jibbering idiots (in my humble opinion). (Seriously… I wonder which Middle East prince will pick it up…)
There is so much noise, froth, sturm und drang as the news for Ukraine whips up all kinds of confusing signals threatening to undermine the markets. It’s a good idea to Stop. Look. Listen. Think. Try to figure out the likely, unlikely and very unlikely consequences. There is an incredible amount of information, disinformation, news and views out there – the trick is understanding what is real, likely and possible and discounting what is not.
After thinking about it.. I find myself surprisingly bullish… even though we are, de-facto, engaged in economic war with Russia. To ensure it does not turn hot across the whole of Europe – we need to fight it just like real war, putting the West’s economies in full conflict mode and being prepared for economic pain inflicted back on us.
Short-term – Trade what the crowd is thinking – and bear in mind the news will whipsaw sentiment in coming days. In coming days, I am sure much of the newsflow from the real war in Ukraine will be tragic.
Long-term – Figure out what the future looks like. It’s clear Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has crystallised what was already a gathering inflationary tsunami and will likely trigger recession as supply chains break again. How the West’s Central Banks and Politicians respond will be critical. The consequences will rock and challenge the West – but they don’t need to be disastrous. Central Banks can use what they’ve learnt over the last 12 years of monetary experimentation to address it, and don’t be put off by Jay Powell confirming US hikes are coming.
This is an economic war. It’s time to adopt a wartime economic stance. The West’s Paladins will be the Central Banks – they have substantial economic firepower they can and will bring to bear; delaying rate tightening, trading low rates against rising inflation to maintain growth and avoid market meltdown. They can continue to spend, at the cost of wracking up future debt.
That will have consequences – but there is no point dying of thirst to save water! Fiscal and Monetary Policy can and will keep the West economically functional.
The inevitable consequences of inflation on savings, prosperity and national wealth can be addressed via social policies. None of these things will be easy – they will trigger consequences – but we will do these things because they will be necessary and they will be difficult, to misquote an American president.
In an economic knife fight between the West and Russia – the West should not hesitate to pull out an economic blunderbuss, and use it.
For Russia? I don’t think they have clue what is coming.
One of my colleagues got through to the last man left on a commodities desk in Moscow yesterday – Russian TV is showing “peacekeeping” tanks being greeted with bread and salt, and only flowers being thrown at them. But, as Moscow will find out, this is not the 1930s. The Russians are not daft. They will figure it out. Runs on banks, protest and ferment will follow. Last night it was cut to Junk and is in technical default (as I predicted earlier this week). Their nation has become a pariah siege economy, and will shortly be hamstrung with Weimar-era inflation. All the West need’s do is increase the pressure – and wait.
Here in the Middle East, where I am currently working on a project, there is a surprising level of sympathy for Russia – many believe Russia has a justified case the West reneged on promises not to expand NATO. But, even they admit Putin’s invasion is unjustified. What China thinks is critical – do they break with the West and embrace Russia, or let it take its course while ploughing their own fertile furrows. The latter is the more optimal course. But perhaps, President Xi may not see it that way.
As this immediate crisis hardens into a new investment landscape what is going to be the most significant shift?
To my mind it will be in Europe – suddenly the richest, but most fragmented continent has pulled itself together! After years of endlessly debating where to put the commas on 1000-page agreements on what kind of bananas they can sell to citizens, suddenly Europe has found common purpose uniting versus Putin.
To the great surprise of long-term Euro-sceptics – including myself – Europe has awoken. The complete reversal of years of Ost-political dumbf*ck*ry by Germany, tough talking by Brussels, and even the most peripheral bad Europeans understanding their future as part of a rich influential Europe is far better than cowering under the threat of renewed Russian expansionism. Europe suddenly gets it – and dimly glimpsed in our future are glorious uplands..
Well.. maybe. How long European unity lasts is open to debate… later this year the USA is likely to remove itself from the Western “coalition of the willing” when Biden is crushed at the mid-terms and the GOP chose isolationism ahead of Trump V2.1 or similar in 2025. European leaders need to decide if they can continue/risk the fight without a reliable partner in America.
Hold-fast I say! This could be the making of Europe! (Although, to be fair history is not on our side here – when confronted by external threats, the default European sovereign reaction was to wonder who would stab them in the back, and therefore who to stab first..)
I was talking with an influential UK broadcaster the other night (you would be surprised who subscribes to the Porridge), and knowing me he was frankly stunned by my unexpected bullishness on Europe. (I am seldom mistaken for a ray of sunshine when it comes to being bullish.) I see Europe having just had its Road to Damascus moment of St Paul, or maybe the bit in Lord of the Rings where King Theoden of Rohan wakes from his addled drug induced apathy. But, do recall, they both paid heavily for what they came to believe.
This vision of a prosperous, effective Europe is an intriguing and exciting one… could it withstand the demands and pressures its many tribes would place upon it? Who knows… but in the fires of conflict and all that tosh are the strongest of bonds forged….
We can’t just hope the Ukraine crisis goes away. War in Ukraine is already hammering at the doors of the West.
I heard yesterday One-World, the UK’s global telecoms/internet satellite constellation was denied a launch on Saturday unless it promises its’ birds are not used for military purposes and the UK government divests its stake. Western companies that haven’t fully exited Russia – like VW and Goldman – are being rightly castigated by the public. This is Economic War – and what we know about war is go in hard, heavy and like you mean it.
Meanwhile, the media fascinates me at present. Everyone is an expert.. but for what its worth I have some questions about Ukraine.
Why is it all the Russian troops Ukraine has captured and displayed on the media seem to be teenage conscripts or elderly reservists? Over the past 20 years the Russian armies have been substantially professionalised and only 20% are now conscripts. Might that mean the professional Russian forces are somewhere else? Remember – Maskirovka – the classic Russian tactic of making their enemy focus on one hand while stabbing them with the other.
Is Putin really mad? That’s just too easy. I do think he’s been caught by surprise at how vehemently Europe and the US have reacted. He has miscalculated the reaction. He expected Europe to be cowed by energy insecurity. Russia is maybe fighting badly, but is by its playbook: being predictably unpredictable, throwing subterfuge and as much distraction into the battle and noise as possible, and unsettling their enemies to the maximum extent. Putin’s threats to escalate right up to nuclear seem classic attempts to play the “mad dog”, ramping up fears he is deranged in order to make the West absolutely terrified. Its intimidation – pure and simple. Should the West call his bluff? Amateurs talk tactics. Professionals talk logistics – which is where sanctions will crush Russia.
I expect all-out sanctions will work – but I doubt swiftly enough to save Ukraine in the short-term. Stories the Russians have already run short on war materials, and Ukraine only has to hang-on seem unlikely. In the near term, the tougher the sanctions – no matter how painful for the west, the more likely they are to destabilise Putin’s regime.