Rebellion in Russia could trigger selloff in U.S. stocks and flight to safe assets, analysts say. Here’s what investors should know.

Watch what happens over the next 36 hours.

That was the advice from one financial analyst as U.S. investors awoke on Saturday to news of an apparent armed rebellion against Moscow led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the powerful Russian mercenary organization Wagner Group.

Others speculated that the crisis in Russia could drive U.S. stocks lower, as some traders were already betting on a selloff once markets reopen on Monday due to this sudden spike in geopolitical risk.

“The developments in Russia are ultimately going to suggest President Putin’s leadership is weakening quickly and that resources may shift away from the war with Ukraine. It is too early to say how this will impact Wall Street, but the risk of desperate measures from Putin might make some investors nervous,” Edward Moya, senior market analyst at Oanda, said Saturday.

A simmering feud between Prigozhin, the leader of the military contractor whose mercenary forces have been fighting alongside Russian military troops in Ukraine, and the Russian Defense Ministry came to a head early Saturday as Prigozhin led his troops to successfully overtake a Russian military outpost near the Ukrainian frontier, which the Kremlin has used as its command center for overseeing the war in Ukraine.

Amid the mixture of reliable information and unfounded speculation, market analysts have scrambled to make sense of the situation and what it might mean for financial markets and the global economy.

The main theme that has emerged so far is that U.S. stocks would suffer unless the Russian military managed to quickly suppress the rebellion, as may have occurred with reports late Saturday that Prigozhin had halted a Wagner advance on Moscow and, in fact, might be relocating to neighboring Belarus. But how would something that could potentially cut short the war in Ukraine — which has been a bugbear for markets since the full-scale invasion by Russian forces in February 2022 — be a negative for stocks?

The answer is that chaos leads to uncertainty, and that uncertainty is anathema to markets — especially when it could disrupt global oil and food supplies.

“I’d bet on this creating more uncertainty which is generally going to be negative for risk … in the short term at least you see higher geopolitical risk premia — longer term the risks are on both sides really: does this precipitate the collapse of the Russian front and the war ends?” said Neil Wilson, chief market analyst at Finalto, in a note to clients on Saturday.

Others noted that the crisis is coming at a vulnerable time for U.S. markets, while Michael Antonelli, a market strategist at R.W. Baird & Co., suggested in a tweet that the crisis “has to be” bearish for U.S. stocks.

The S&P 500 index
SPX,
-0.77%
closed out its worst week since March on Friday as a series of interest-rate hikes in the U.K. and across Europe last week sparked fresh fears of a global recession. Some analysts noted that the pullback swiftly followed signs that investors are growing more bullish following a powerful rally that sent stocks to their highest levels in 14 months. There are concerns that this shift in sentiment could presage investors’ final capitulation.

Sven Henrich, founder and lead strategist of Northman Trader, noted that the Cboe Volatility Index
VIX,
+4.11%,
the market’s so-called fear gauge, which measures the stock market’s expectations for volatility over the next 30 days, managed to finish last week below 13.5, its lowest level since January 2020, even as stocks pulled back.

If stocks do continue to slide, that would mean new lows for the Vix have proved to be a reliable counterindicator, suggesting that investors had grown complacent before being walloped by a fresh shock.

Asian markets will be the first to react to ongoing developments by Sunday evening Eastern time, but derivatives traders using CME Group’s Globex platform to trade swaps tracking the value of U.S. equity indexes are already betting on a selloff.

Meanwhile, bitcoin
BTCUSD,
+0.75%,
an asset that does reliably trade 24/7, was down just 0.8% at $30,675, a slight pullback after achieving its highest level in a year late last week. By Saturday evening the leading cryptocurrency has reversed that earlier dip.

Where might investors turn for safety if markets do become chaotic?

Finalto’s Wilson said investors could seek shelter in the currency market, where the U.S. dollar
DXY,
+0.47%,
Swiss franc
USDCHF,
-0.02%
and maybe the euro
EURUSD,
+0.32%
and British pound
GBPUSD,
+0.02%
could benefit from a spike in demand. More “de-risking” could send investors into ultrasafe government bonds like U.S. Treasurys
TMUBMUSD10Y,
3.741%,
which could help to push yields lower, as bond yields move inversely to prices.

Wilson anticipated that European indexes could be “more exposed to de-risking due to makeup and proximity to Russia and the war in Ukraine.” He also noted the possibility that this latest crisis could send the S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite
COMP,
-1.01%
higher if investors decided to seek shelter in high-quality growth names like Apple Inc.
AAPL,
-0.17%,
Nvidia Corp.
NVDA,
-1.90%
or Microsoft Corp.
MSFT,
-1.38%,
which have helped to drive this year’s equity-market rally.

Whatever happens, the outcome of the crisis should be more clear within the next 35 hours, Wilson said.

“[H]ow the market opens after the weekend will depend on what happens in the next 36 hours. … [I]t could all be over by then,” Wilson said.

Regardless, one of the first to interpret the market’s reaction on Monday will be Melbourne-based Chris Weston, head of research at online broker Pepperstone.

Until then, he cautioned investors against reading too much into the Wagner situation, since analysts’ visibility into a very complicated geopolitical situation is “poor.”

“The humble market participant would simply say they have no edge in knowing how this plays out and our visibility to read this through to markets is currently poor — the information is often biased and it’s hard to truly know what is fact and what is fed to influence. … [W]ill this lead to genuine regime change, fail or perhaps inflame and lead to a market shock?” Weston said in comments provided to MarketWatch.

“At this point we simply don’t know, but it feels like we get enough clarity on potential outcomes and even timelines in the next 24-48 hours — at this point the prospect of modest downside risk on Monday is elevated and naturally we’ll be watching crude and EU assets most closely,” he said.

Terry Haines, founder of Pangea Policy, said in an email to clients that the ongoing uncertainty fueled by the Wagner rebellion reveals the fragility of the Putin regime, and might marginally boost chances of a Ukraine victory.

But Haines also conceded that it’s a “developing and unstable situation with various facets that on net add to geopolitical uncertainties, to which markets usually react negatively.” Investors must also consider that, should that rebellion fail, it could be “replaced by stronger Russian control” or create further instability as “Wagner disintegrates.”

In that same vein, Jim Bianco, head of Bianco Research, offered up a joke aimed at all the armchair geopolitical analysts suddenly flocking to Twitter.

Markets may take a look at this crisis and view it as a “bullish development after some initial volatility, the Kobeissi Letter’s editor in chief and founder, Adam Kobeissi, told MarketWatch in Saturday comments.

“After all, the end of the war in Ukraine is the market’s top geopolitical driver right now, and if this increases the odds of a peace agreement and/or Russia withdrawing from Ukraine, it is likely to be perceived as bullish over the next few weeks,” he said.

He recommended that investors keep an eye on prices of oil and gold, which could be particularly sensitive to any fresh developments.

“If this means more conflict,” he said, “then oil
CL.1,
+0.51%,
bonds
TMUBMUSD10Y,
3.741%
and gold
GC00,
+0.04%
are poised to rally.”

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