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For those watching markets, oil will be the key transmission channel between the conflict and the financial world. At a bare minimum, the attacks in and around Israel and Gaza are likely to stop oil from dipping below current price levels, especially as investors watch to see if Iran is implicated. Iran exports around 1-1.5 million barrels of oil a day, not large by global standards but it has played in important role in filling the supply shortfall this year following production cuts by Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Yet the biggest question for the oil market is whether a rise in tensions could threaten tanker traffic through the Straits of Hormuz - daily worth around 20 per cent of global supplies.
“The market has acted very rationally so far,” said Fidelity International oil sector analyst and fund manager Paul Gooden. “It rose 3-4 per cent before steadying. That is a premium for the potential risks from the conflict rather than reflecting any direct hit to supply. For there to be another big spike it would take something like a direct threat to supplies through the Straits.”
Moves in oil bring with them the risk of another inflation shock, especially for oil importing countries. One comparison is the eruption of the Ukraine war last year. Iran's situation and place in the oil production and export market is different to Russia’s, but much will depend on the attitude of other suppliers, most importantly Saudi Arabia.
“I do worry that compared to previous regional flashpoints, there may be more risk here,” said Salman Ahmed, Global Head of Macro and SAA. “Previous escalations of the conflict - the last serious one was in 2006 - usually were contained relatively quickly and ceasefires came into play after a few days of hostilities. But the world is a very different place now than it was in 2006.”
Changed playing field
The next steps of the crisis are critical: Israel's response and what impact that has on the wider region.
“We have seen the first phase of the situation,” says Ahmed. “And now the second phase is starting in terms of its actions in Gaza directly. The third phase is how will the wider region respond.”
There have been efforts to broker better relations in the Middle East, both between Saudi Arabia and Iran and Saudi and Israel.
Gooden notes that the US, interested in keeping oil prices low in an election year, has gone easier on its sanctions regime towards Iran in recent months.
“If the US were to get tougher again on Iranian sanctions, that might tighten the market, but it would be a more gradual [price] rise,” he said.
On the financial side, any boost to inflation brings with it the potential for a further extension of the ‘higher for longer’ stance that the big central banks have taken on interest rates and this will have an effect on expectations for the economy.
Financing conditions for companies and households are getting tighter and if there is another boost to prices globally it may also force the central banks to keep policy tighter for longer. Higher oil prices themselves will also act like a tax on consumption.
Our approach to asset allocation was already cautious and we were already forecasting a US recession in the coming 6-12 months, but the unfolding situation is clearly negative for risky assets in general.
For the short term, it has provided a safe-haven bid to the Treasury market after weeks of selling. We saw that in the Ukraine-Russia war last year as well: the immediate knee jerk reaction was a drop in yields. But they very quickly recovered and made new highs because the more long-lasting effect was on inflation.
We remain underweight both equities and credit and overweight government bonds. We believe that now is a time to stay flexible and, where possible, take regional, sector, and country specific views to adjust risk exposure, in particular moving to higher-quality market segments. We believe that the US dollar, gold, and government bonds should offer some protection if market volatility increases, although, again, the outlook for bonds is complicated by the potential for central banks to be compelled to remain more hawkish. We prefer UK Gilts and US inflation-linked Treasuries, and within credit we prefer the relative safety of investment grade over high yield.
For equities, we prefer exposure to the UK, emerging markets and Japan. A stronger US dollar is typically negative for emerging market equities and any rally is likely to exert pressure on the emerging market asset class. However, it is worth pointing out that emerging markets are less negatively exposed to a rising US dollar than in previous cycles such as the 2013 taper tantrum, with many economies holding less dollar-denominated debt than before.
An oil price rally would clearly have mixed implications for emerging market economies and companies based in the region, benefiting oil exporters and energy companies, but exacerbating inflationary pressures and negatively impacting energy importers and many consumer stocks.