Can investors continue to ignore geopolitics?

A worker checks the valve of an oil pipe at an oil field owned by Bashneft company near the village of Nikolo-Berezovka, north-west from Ufa, Bashkortostan. Oil has been elevated as global demand remains strong, while Ukraine is reducing Russian oil product exports by attacking large Russian oil refineries, with drones. File photo: Reuters

I learnt from Warren Buffett that we should ignore geopolitics, and this advice worked well until early 2016. Since Brexit and Trump, the advice has become riskier, and even Buffett is struggling with the adjustment.

He recently sold $4 billion (R75bn) worth of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) stock due to “political risk” but left his Apple stake intact.

Apple, his largest holding by far, has about 25 times the Taiwan invasion risk as his TSMC holding, as Apple “manufactures” more than 70% of its sales in China, with chips sourced from Taiwan. Even the best investors struggle with geopolitical risks in a more populist, multipolar world.

Markets have been blind-sided time and again by political and geopolitical events such as Brexit, Trump, Covid and the related shutdown of the global economy, the largest fiscal stimulus in history, the Chinese clampdown on technology stocks, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the abrupt reopening of China post the end of Zero-Covid.

More recently, the Houthis in Yemen have disrupted trade flows through the Suez Canal, through which 25 to 30% of annual global container traffic transits. Their drone and missile attacks caused traffic through the canal to fall by 80%, and global shipping rates to increase by 70% year on year.

This is relevant to investors expecting an imminent rate-cutting cycle, as a fall in goods inflation has been the main driver of the falling US consumer price Index, while services inflation has been much stickier. A band of Houthis in Yemen could thus contribute to higher goods prices and potentially a slower rate-cutting cycle.

Additionally, oil has been elevated as global demand remains strong, while Ukraine is reducing Russian oil product exports by attacking large Russian oil refineries, with drones. There is also a geopolitical risk premium in oil prices as tension between Israel and Iran escalates. Iran produces around 4% of global oil, and around 21% of global oil transits through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, bordering Iran.

While food and energy are generally excluded by policymakers when assessing inflation, the indirect energy costs relating to the transport of goods are not excluded.

Another novel risk is that carry trades would unwind. For decades, Japanese investors have been borrowing in Japan at low interest rates and investing in global bond markets to earn much higher yields not available in long-time deflationary Japan. The Bank of Japan is in the early phases of unwinding its ultra-low interest rate policy, and if it hikes fast, rather than slow, global carry trades could unwind, negatively affecting bonds in the US, EU, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil and India. For now, it seems more likely it will hike slowly. Japanese private investors own an estimated $4 trillion in mostly bonds of these countries.

The Russia-Ukraine war should see an inflection point within the next month as the US will probably approve $60bn of additional funding for Ukraine, along with seizing approximately $60bn of frozen Russian Central Bank assets and transferring it to Ukraine. Ukraine will thus go from underfunded to well-funded for its defence against Russia.

An additional $120bn of Ukrainian funding should cause Russian President Vladimir Putin to recalculate. Does he consider diplomacy or escalation? Russia and Ukraine are large exporters of corn, wheat, sunflower oil, oil, natural gas, fertiliser and palladium. The choice of response could affect goods, food and energy prices.

The possible US seizure of Russian Central Bank assets would cause numerous global central banks to question the risk-free nature of US Treasuries. Treasuries are risk-free for friends, and risky for future enemies.

It should be clear that geopolitics can affect inflation, and studies have shown that inflation affects election outcomes. It also affects interest rate policies, and it seems that a possible goods inflation resurgence could mean that US rate cuts might be slower than expected. Russia-Ukraine diplomacy seems a distant dream, yet I hope for diplomatic progress. War is inflationary, peace is disinflationary.

A multipolar world brings greater geopolitical uncertainty and we need to be alert to its effects. -IOL

*Nick van Rensburg is a strategy consultant at All Weather, managers of the Amplify SCI* Enhanced Equity Retail Hedge Fund.

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