The Good, Bad, & Ugly Market Implications Of A "Crimean" War

Submitted by Peter Tchir of TF Market Advisors,

The Crimean War

The Charge of the Light Brigade is from the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.  Conspicuously missing as any reference from that war was the Ukraine.  In fact, Crimea was effectively “gifted” to the Ukraine in 1954 by Khrushchev.  The Soviet Union had a strong policy of attempting to break up or at least dilute strong groups of a single, non Russian, ethnicity.

So the big problem today is that Crimea doesn’t look or feel Ukrainian, and it is home to one of Russia’s most important naval bases.  For many, this always seemed a recipe for disaster.

You lease cars, not crucial military bases.  Having said that I will admit to never fully understanding Gitmo, which is where the U.S. leases a Naval Base (or interrogation center) from Cuba where we are actually enemies.

So what does this all mean?

The “Best” Case – Independent Crimea
At this stage the “best” case seems to be a deal that creates an “independent” Crimea.  Russia can do some chest thumping and the West gives up relatively little that really they hadn’t given up before.

I don’t see this ending without an independent Crimea.  The situation went too far and there doesn’t seem any way to reconcile.  There does not appear to be much interest in the Crimea to remain part of Ukraine and Russia won’t stop agitating until it gets what it wants.

The Ukraine can get some gas concessions from Russia to save face.

I see that as the best case.  I am not sure it is the most likely case because it is difficult to determine if

1.      Will Russia be content to stop there?
2.      Will the Ukraine or NATO take steps to provoke Russia?

Let’s hope the best case occurs as it shouldn’t have a big impact on the lives of most people, even in the Ukraine, and the markets should remain pretty calm.

The Slippery Slope – Eastern Ukraine
Much of the Eastern part of Ukraine is Russian speaking.  Vitaly Fiks (the F in TF), was born in Odessa and spoke Russian not Ukrainian.  That is the norm.  Much of the heavily industrialized East has strong Russian connections.

The demonstrations have been spreading to cities in this region.

So will Russia be content with the Crimea?

This is where you have to think like a Russian.  I have seen a few articles on the subject that too many analyze Russia with a Western perspective and agree that is what leads to mistakes.  To think like a Russian is relatively easy.  Create a vodka-induced haze of pessimism where everyone seems out to get you and mix in a little anger and cruelty with a strong desire to persevere and win, and you have it.  Okay, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but do think about who are the players here:

  • A former colonel in the KGB (which I assume you don’t get to by being soft and naïve) who has managed to come out on top in a country of oligarchs.  The 0.01% in Russia do extremely well, are happy to flaunt it, and go to great lengths (legal and occasionally otherwise) to defend it. This is a hard man who is used to getting his way.
  • A constitutional lawyer who turned into a community organizer who can barely get people to agree not to default on our own debt.  He has a great ability to fundraise but seems tired of the job.
  • Then you have a woman who has been able to hold together the EU and shape it to suit her and her country.  She has done a great job of balancing internal and external pressure.  She is very smart.  She understands the mindset of the East having come from East German.  Frankly, I think she is the best hope, but she has been extremely quiet, and while cobbling together a bunch of central bankers has been difficult enough within the framework of the EU, putting together something, military or otherwise that gives Russia seems very difficult.

So the next biggest risk is a push into Eastern Ukraine and I think it is quite possible and there is a good lesson from Georgia on this one.

There Russia effectively pushed 10 miles further than they had to.  Then as part of their negotiations they conceded the territory from that last push and pulled back to the borders that they had wanted in the first place.

Why not push and see what happens?

This is our base case.  Russians will creep into Eastern Ukraine.  We expect a reasonably quick resolution that again leaves most people unaffected and can leave the markets calm.

This is where it gets a little more troublesome, at least for the markets.

Germany started with Austria and then moved into other primarily German regions of other countries prior to World War II really getting under way.  Small areas, not deemed essential I guess by the rest of the world, where many of the inhabitants seemed to welcome the change with open arms were allowed to proceed.

Belarus?  Belarus was one of the first to form part of the Soviet Union.  I have never heard a single Westerner suggest a visit to Minsk.  It is heavily Russian speaking, heavily industrialized, and struggling.  Is that next?

While Estonia and Lithuania seem to have re-emerged with strong nationalistic pride, that seems less clear to me in Latvia.  Is that another area where you could see the ethnic Russia’s try and create a situation that could be more to their liking?  It seems less likely than Belarus, but, we have moved from “likely scenarios” to where this could lead.

I don’t think the markets would respond well to Russia, which is resource rich, flexing its muscle in this format.  We don’t think this scenario plays out, but if Russia is allowed to encroach into Eastern Ukraine, expect growing fears of a Russian Anschluss to weigh on markets.

When the Cats Away, the Syria Will Play

Syria has not yet delivered all of its chemical weapons to the authorities.  From what I can tell, we are more in a lull than having seen any real resolution.

With all eyes on Russia, it could create an opportunity for Syria to cause serious problems. How could the U.S. go into Syria but leave Russia alone?  Why wouldn’t the Russians volunteer to help Syria?

This could happen in parallel with the events in the Ukraine and we don’t think the markets would be comfortable with this.

I think it is likely that we see some noise out of Syria and that will be negative.

The Enemy of my Enemy – Chinese Silence

China seems to be very quiet on the subject of Ukraine and territorial rights.  Maybe that is because China has no interest in the outcome?  Maybe it is because China isn’t aware of what is going on?  Those are both clearly not true.

Maybe China is watching the developments and deciding whether now is a good time to resolve their own territorial disputes.

It seems that China has been getting more aggressive in and around the islands that they have an ongoing dispute with Japan.

I doubt China does anything, but if they do, markets will be hit hard as that will put a question into global trade like we haven’t seen in years.

It doesn’t seem to be in Chinese interests to do anything, but then again, maybe they think there won’t be repercussions?

So we view this as unlikely, but will keep an eye out.

Other “Hot Spots”?

Are there other places, off our radar map, that might see this as an opportunity to be more aggressive?

Overall View

We remain bearish risk assets due to our view that they are overvalued.

At this stage we see very little from the Ukraine priced into the market, and with our best case that makes sense and even our base case (encroachment into Eastern Ukraine that is quickly and peacefully) resolved, the impact should be minimal.  Probably creates a little downside to the market but that is it.

As some of the other scenarios potentially come into play, whether in reality or perception, the risk to further downside in the market is significant.

Since we are already recommending being short based on the economy and the misperception of the Fed’s next steps, you effectively pick up the conflict for free.

With VIX being so low, picking up some downside protection makes a lot of sense here.


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