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Russia in chaos! Ghost of '98 crash haunting stocks

U.S. futures are slightly higher this morning, at least as I speak. If anything, the early signs of life should be a warning sign to investors after yesterday saw a higher open followed by six hours of selling. When the dust settled the S&P 500 (^GSPC) had lost another .6%, closing perilously below the key support at 2,000.

The big news this morning is that Russia's Central Bank raised rates by 650 basis points to 17% in an attempt to stop the ruble's crash against other major currencies. The ruble improved by as much as 9% against the dollar before collapsing entirely. Suffice it to say the ruble has now replaced the free-fall in crude at the top of the "Big List of Horrible Things for Stock Investors."

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I realize U.S. stocks aren't even down 5% from record highs. I'm not overstating the sell-off so far but markets tend to repeat themselves and this market is evoking some dark memories of past crashes.

The ghost rattling its chains in the market right now dates back to 1998. That's the last time Russia tried to save its currency with measures this drastic. It didn't work then and it won't work now, but the real point here is the impact a daisy chain of International cluster messes had on U.S. stocks.

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There's great research on this. The short version of the story is that a bunch of levered bets on foreign currencies, rates and commodities started going south all at once. When I talk about "dislocation" as a market risk 1998 is the best example. Simply put, investors all ran away from risk at the same time. At first the U.S. was seen as a safe haven. We had an unemployment rate of 4.3%, rocking GDP a budget surplus and an Internet bubble just getting warmed up. It was a great time to be long the U.S. At least it seemed like it.

None of that saved us. Dislocations create forced sellers and that eventually led to a more than 20% decline in the Dow in less than two months.

I'm not saying it happens. I still own stocks. But I was around in 1998. I had just started my hedge fund and I damn near got shivved in the crib by a bunch of ridiculous central banks and an over-levered hedge fund. It wasn't pretty then and it isn't now. I'm not saying panic. I'm saying do your homework. When governments start making stuff up as they go along the way Russia is now it's never good for markets in the short term.

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