Russia Sends Dow Down 200+; Is Ukraine a Black-Swan Event?

Tension in the Crimean region of Ukraine sent the Dow plunging, but the Fear Index remains relatively subdued. What's behind the disparity?

Mar 3, 2014 at 12:00PM

Russia's aggressive moves in the Crimean region of Ukraine sparked massive sell-offs around the world on Monday, with Russian stocks losing more than 10% of their value and European markets getting hit especially hard. Even the Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES:^DJI) were down more than 200 points as of 11:45 a.m. EST, and the S&P Volatility Index (VOLATILITYINDICES:^VIX) -- also known as the Fear Index -- was up about 16% as of midday. Yet even as investors in iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures (NYSEMKT:VXX) and VelocityShares 2x VIX ST (NASDAQ:TVIX) celebrated with respective gains of 6% and 11%, the question many investors are asking is whether the potential for even further conflict in Ukraine is the long-awaited "black swan" event that many investors have looked for as potentially signaling a reversal in the 5-year-old bull market in stocks.

Despite all the uproar among global leaders and diplomats, investors thus far remain unconvinced that the conflict in the Crimea will become anything more than a minor regional event. Even though the Fear Index is up sharply today, its overall level remain far below past spikes in volatility. The volatility index would have to jump another 30%-35% just to match where it stood in early February, as investors seemed much more concerned about the cold weather's potential impact in causing a long-awaited correction in the stock market.

Meanwhile, for those seeking to profit from volatility, Russia's move could just prove to be another feint that doesn't produce a long-term change in the way investors assess market risk. Even with today's move, the iPath exchange-traded note remains more than 10% below its levels from a month ago, and it has lost more than 60% of its value since the beginning of 2013. The VelocityShares vehicle has produced even bigger losses over the long run, as investors have remained complacent for years even in the face of serious risks.

For now, there's little sign that investors see the Ukraine-Russia conflict as a potential black-swan event, and given the constant and ongoing geopolitical tension between Russia and its European neighbors, it's hard to say that such moves were completely unpredictable. Nevertheless, smart investors should keep their eyes open to further developments in the Crimea, as anything other than the widely held expectation that things will calm down in due course could indeed spark a more substantial sell-off.

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