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Potential Ukraine War a ‘Polar Vortex’ Risk to Stocks: Morgan Stanley’s Wilson

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A potential Russian invasion of Ukraine could push economies into recession, posing another significant risk for equity markets, according to one of Wall Street’s most vocal bears.

A war “materially increases the odds of a polar vortex for the economy and earnings,” Morgan Stanley’s chief U.S. equity strategist Michael Wilson wrote in a note to clients.

A spike in energy prices “would destroy demand, in our view, and perhaps tip several economies into an outright recession,” the strategist and his team said, adding that energy stocks are most at risk of a selloff.

Crude oil prices rose, and natural gas surged in European markets on Monday, amid warnings from the U.S. government that Russia could mount an invasion as soon as this week.

US Stock chart for 2022 ytd from Bloomberg

The standoff pushed Asian and European stocks lower, exacerbating this year’s rout triggered by fears that central banks will raise interest rates more aggressively than previously anticipated to tame surging inflation. Russian officials have repeatedly denied plans to attack Ukraine.

Wilson, who has persistently warned that U.S. equity markets are heading for a correction and has the lowest year-end target for the S&P 500 index out of all strategists surveyed by Bloomberg, said Monday that investors will soon shift their focus from inflation to economic growth.

In fact, a sharply decelerating economy may mean that the Federal Reserve will not hike rates as many times as markets currently expect, he said.

“This is why we still favor a more defensive, rather than growth, bias within the quality bucket where we believe earnings achievability is less vulnerable to that growth disappointment,” Wilson said. The stock market’s correction remains incomplete, he said.

To be sure, not everyone shares Wilson’s gloom. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. strategists cut their year-end target for the S&P 500 index, but they still see an upside or around 11% from current levels for U.S. equities.

“Despite recent volatility, it’s important to remember that we are still in an environment of robust economic and earnings growth, and in our base case we expect upside for equity markets over the balance of the year,” Mark Haefele, chief investment officer at UBS Global Wealth Management said Monday. “Our base case is that inflation will fall and geopolitical tensions will ease over the coming months, allowing markets to move higher.”

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