Can You Profit From a Syrian War and Still Sleep at Night?

Although we don't believe in timing the market or panicking over daily movements, we do like to keep an eye on market changes -- just in case they're material to our investing thesis.

America is on the brink of another war. In the words of Motown songwriting legend Barrett Strong, war is nothing but a heartbreaker and friend only to the undertaker. But this time, oil companies love the boiling tension in Syria, and energy investors are already reaping the rewards.

The Syrian crisis is a direct threat to one of the world's richest sources of crude oil. That's why oil prices are skyrocketing right now, with various grades of crude oil jumping about 3% overnight. Shares of oil giant ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) have responded with a 1.9% price surge as of 1:30 p.m. EDT, and Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) scored an even larger 2.6% gain. Combined, the two oil stocks account for most of the Dow Jones Industrial Average's (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) 67-point gain this afternoon.

Remember that this is just the rattling of sabers at dawn. If U.S. forces attack Syria via air raids or cruise missiles, as military leaders say they might do later this week, oil prices could spike much higher. This could be a very opportune time to buy Chevron and Exxon shares, albeit on very cynical grounds.

Though environmental activists might disagree, investors typically don't have to grapple with moral quandaries before buying Exxon shares. The business was built on a nonrenewable resource and all, but it's not exactly evil to exploit modern society's thirst for the black gold.

But at this particular moment, oil stocks are a kind of "sin stock." If oil prices skyrocket 40% in a week, as some experts say they might if we go to war in Syria, isn't that akin to price-gouging consumers at the gas station when a hurricane is rolling into town?

Then again, nobody expects Chevron to shut down its international operations over this political conflict. That would just drive prices even higher as American suppliers drop out of the global oil trade. In the end, the oil giants are just playing the hand they're dealt and charging prices set by a free market.

Moreover, investors are taking a risk by betting on a Syrian oil-price bonanza. If our forces back down instead of shipping out, or if U.N. investigators can prove that the Syrian government wasn't responsible for last week's Sarin nerve gas attacks, then oil prices will slide back down -- and take oil stocks along for the ride. Share prices are inflated now, and there's no guarantee that they will soar even higher. This is a reversible catalyst.

Do you plan to capitalize on the Syrian controversy's potential for boosting oil prices, or would you lose sleep over the moral implications? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Foolish disclosure policies prevent me from taking any action, now that I'm writing about it. If that weren't the case, I think I could sleep at night with some fresh Exxon or Chevron shares under my pillow. Hate the game, not the player. And don't forget that you hope to be rewarded for taking a market risk.

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  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2013, at 2:26 PM, utilitybug wrote:

    I believe there is (or at least should be) a special place in hell for people who use war for personal profit.

  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2013, at 4:23 PM, jackson222 wrote:

    I always lose sleep when I'm invested in the stock market, but it has nothing to do with profiting from war.

  • Report this Comment On October 23, 2013, at 3:04 PM, thidmark wrote:

    "I believe there is (or at least should be) a special place in hell for people who use war for personal profit."

    I would add phony moralists to that group.

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