Thursday, February 24, 2022

Ukrainian War and Peace

A few hours ago, Russia decided to do the unthinkable which is to invade Ukraine when the world is still nursing itself from the disruption caused by the pandemic. It was reported that Russian forces poured into Ukraine from multiple locations and lives had already been lost on the battlefields. Global markets collapsed with major European markets falling 5-6% as we speak. Russia's own stock market fell 30%!

Oil prices which went negative $40 last year at the height of the pandemic is now at a multi year high of $105. This is the crazy world that we now live in. Imagine if we had bought oil at -$40 last year and now we can sell at +$100! How does the return calculation even work?

Meanwhile, individual stocks are badly hit. In Singapore, index names like banks fell as global investors take risks off their portfolios. Air travel related names got their second punch in the face (the first being the pandemic) and fell a good 4-5%. Food Empire, with its core business in Russia fell close to 6%. Only oil related names did well given the rally in crude.

It is unclear what is Putin's play here. Does he want to leave a legacy, be remembered as the Russian leader who united Ukraine and the ex-USSR nations? Or he simply wants to use this opportunity to stir shit, play geo-politics and stay in office for as long as possible? Or is it really pre-emptive because if Ukraine joins NATO, then Russia will see dark days with NATO at its doorstep and surely he doesn't want to be judge by history as doing nothing when that happened. 

However, it is said that this war will cause at least 50,000 lives. Already, hundreds of soldiers and a few civilians have died. So what is the math here? 50,000 lives and thousands of Ukrainians and Russians suffering and all the sanctions that will come with the invasion (which will cause even more suffering for the rest of Russia) is worth Ukraine not joining NATO and Putin's legacy not getting tarnished?

Well, let's leave the moral questions aside for now. What can investors do about the current situation?

As with most crises, this would turn out to be a buying opportunity if we have the stomach for the volatility ahead. We have gone too far down the QE addiction that any decline will be supported by governments to devalue fiat currencies, thereby inflating the values of stocks, investments and other assets. However, if war breaks out in the same magnitude of WWI, then we are in a different regime. We shall revisit this doomsday scenario later.

STI's stock reaction today

It is worth noting that quality stocks are not falling as much as the high beta names. For example, amongst the European stocks that I track, weak names like Bayer and Rolls Royce are collapsing while stronger names like Diageo and Adidas are holding up much better. In Singapore, similarly stronger names like Singtel and SGX did not fall as much as Venture and the Jardine names (see table above). It also seemed that we are not seeing real capitulation yet, so the bottom may come only next week or the week after. 

This is a good reminder that we should always stick with strength and quality. These stocks are boring but precisely in times like this that we don't lose sleep agonizing over why they are falling like rocks. Although I must emphasize that the heydays of Singtel could be over. It is on its way to become a dumbpipe. Also, I did recommend Jardine Cycle and Carriage as a holding but it's not in the same league as SGX and Diageo, for sure. So, sometimes we just have to stomach the volatility that comes with some of these higher beta plays.

Of course, if this escalates to full blown war, then no amount of buying on dips can help. I have held the view that we always face a remote possibility that all that we know about modern finance and money can be gone one day. During the GFC, we came close to that. I am talking about the breakdown of the global financial system, all our savings in the banks gone and fiat currencies no longer hold any meaning. If this war escalates to something like WWI, then that nightmare scenario comes back.

When fiat money loses meaning like Venezula's Bolivar 
- being folded into swans to be sold in USD

Therefore, I have always advocated that we should hold some tangible assets like gold, luxury watches, jewellery and things that are outside today's financial system that can retain value. Hence I also have changing thoughts on Bitcoin which I hope to blog about as well. However, Bitcoin bought at crypto exchanges are still part of the system so you do need to get the Bitcoin into a cold wallet and keep it safe. The other important asset is real estate. But you need to have at least two. One to stay in and the other to sell when savings run out in a protracted war.

Let's hope we don't get there and let's pray for the people in Ukraine now. I am sure Putin is not thinking of escalating the situation to a world war and let's hope the world can find some resolution and avert this nightmare and we can look back in a year's time and feel smart that we bought into the market courageously next week, or even this week.

Huat Ah!

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