What stock market investors need to know about intensifying U.S.-Iran tensions
By William Watts
Published: Jan 4, 2020 7:33 p.m. ET
Markets likely to remain volatile amid expectations for intensifying Middle East conflict
Iranians hold anti-U.S. banners during a demonstration in Tehran on Friday, following the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Major General Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. strike on his convoy at Baghdad International Airport.
Consider it a wake-up call.
Stock market investors shouldn’t panic, but intensifying U.S.-Iran tensions bring home the potential for geopolitical turmoil to make for more volatile price action in 2020 after a blockbuster 2019 rally, investors, analysts and economists said.
Oil prices jumped Friday, while investors dumped equities and piled into haven assets like gold and Treasurys in a knee-jerk reaction to a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad that killed a top Iranian military commander. Tehran vowed to retaliate — and most observers expect them to follow through.
Here’s what market participants should keep in mind:
Things could get choppy
“We came into this year calling for a continuation of the equity bull market, but with a single-digit return profile and elevated volatility,” said David Donabedian, chief investment officer at CIBC Private Wealth Management, in an interview.
And with the U.S.-Iran conflict unlikely to be a “one-and-done” event, the effect on oil and other markets is unlikely fade quickly as it did in September after an attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure that was widely blamed on Iran, he said.
Short-term market volatility is almost entirely driven by policy or geopolitical uncertainty, said Brian Levitt, global market strategist at Invesco, in a Friday note.
“This time will likely be no different. We expect that uncertainty may persist in the near term as markets await potential retaliation from Iran and disruption in the global oil markets,” he wrote.
Room to fall
Stocks ended 2019 on a tear, with major U.S. indexes logging a series of records in December and following through with another set of records on the first trading day of 2020 on Thursday.
On Friday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, -0.81% ended with a loss of 233.92 points, or 0.8%, at 28, 634.88, but off session lows. The S&P 500 SPX, -0.71% gave up 23 points, or 0.7%, to close at 3,234.85, while the Nasdaq Composite finished at 9,020.77, a loss of 71.42 points, or 0.8%.
Friday’s decline didn’t even erase Thursday’s gains, but even bullish analysts warned that overbought conditions and expectations Iran will indeed retaliate leave scope for a pullback and increased volatility.
The 2019 stock market rally wasn’t confined to the U.S., with the MSCI World Index rising 12% since early October, said analysts at ING, in a Friday note.
“ And the big rally in risk assets in December certainly looked like a play on the 2020 story – benign conditions, a trade truce and more money printing in G3 economies. Were events in the Middle East to escalate severely, overweight positioning in risk assets could easily trigger a 7%-10% correction in global equity markets,” they wrote.