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Geopolitical Risks Are a Way Smaller Market Factor Than You Might Think

James Brumley

Blackstone Group LP (NYSE:BX) vice chairman Byron Wien has a point: there’s a market-eating geopolitical monster waiting to rear its ugly head. Investors should keep their eyes peeled for geopolitical risk, especially in companies like Boeing Co (NYSE:BA) and Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) that have the most to lose from worldwide turmoil prodding an all-out trade war.

On the other hand, if we’re being completely honest about stocks’ soft spots, geopolitical risks are always looming above. If that’s a reason in and of itself to steer clear of the market, nobody would ever put (or keep) a penny in stocks.

Indeed, if you can look pasts Wien’s warning and embrace everything else he said immediately before and after his warnings, it’s clear that Blackstone is still a huge fan of stocks despite all those geopolitical risks.

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What Wien Said

Wien’s exact words to CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla in an interview that took place on Thursday morning: “My feeling is that there’s something lurking out there, Carl, that is going to upset the market and it’s probably a geopolitical event. Maybe the upcoming North Korea summit.”

Fair enough. There’s no denying all eyes are on what’s happening in Pyongyang between President Trump and Kim Jong Un right now.

Just as a reminder though, North Korea started posturing via missile tests in February of 2017, and launched a total of 23 missiles between then and November of last year.

The S&P 500 rallied roughly 10% during that time. Ironically, the U.S. market didn’t hit a headwind in January, well after the North Korean regime stopped lobbing missiles (backing away from the brink of a nuclear confrontation).

Perhaps one doesn’t have as much to do with the other as has been suggested.

To that end, Blackstone’s Wien went on to clarify in his interview with Quintanilla that he feels “we are in a period of low volatility because there isn’t a recession in sight. My view is the earliest we’re gonna have a recession is 2021,” only adding the caveat that “There will be 10% corrections along the way.”

In other words, this bull market is just like any other bull market. It mostly is up, but occasionally is interrupted by garden-variety pullbacks.

The underpinnings for that continued progress, Wien argues, are clear.

How so? He also explained in the CNBC interview:

“[T]he signs that I use to determine the advent of the next recession just aren’t in place. Maybe they’ll develop very quickly, but usually they take a while,” meaning there will be ample warning of economic contraction. But, the Blackstone vice chairman made a point of also saying “Leading indicators are still expanding. Earnings are still increasing. Unemployment is low, but inflation is also low.”

As for how long the undertow may keep moving in a bullish direction, Wien believes they’ll do so long enough to merit staying interested in, rather than dismissive of, stocks.

He explains. “Maybe some of these things are going to change abruptly and the yield curve is going to invert. But right now, I see this cycle going on for a couple of more years,” adding “As long as that’s the case, I think volatility will remain low.”

Bottom Line on Geopolitical Risks

The point is, the perceived depth of Wien’s concern about geopolitical risks is largely a function of an investor chooses to see the market, and the world.

Certain geopolitical facts already could easily disturb stocks. For example, unemployment is at multi-year lows and wages are finally rising in earnest. All this is set against a backdrop of measurable but tempered inflation.

Of course geopolitical turmoil like we’re seeing in North Korea and Italy, and to a lesser degree in Britain (the fallout of Brexit), has the potential even the likelihood of up-ending stocks.

The question is, are any of those things likely to keep stocks down?

As a refresher, history is full of long-forgotten calamities the world, and certainly the stock market, would “never get over,”… all of which the world got over.

In 2011, a tsunami prompted the meltdown of a nuclear reactor in Japan. In 2003, the world stood still in fear of the spread of SARS, or the bird flu. Greece’s economic meltdown in 2015 posed the risk of becoming a worldwide contagion. The 2016 election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America was widely expected to send the market careening.

Somehow capitalism survived all of those geopolitical risks. Capitalism finds away because the desire for greater wealth is the one thing the world can agree to work together on.

In other words, of all the things for investors to worry about, geopolitical risks, assuming they don’t directly do anything to crimp earnings, are low on the list of concerns. There’s a huge difference between destabilizing a market and merely prompting a typical correction move.

As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.

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