The crisis in the Ukrainian region of Crimea has sent financial markets across the globe sharply lower Monday, as investors worry about the potential for escalation and the potential ramifications of political and economic moves that could result from the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Yet even though the Dow Jones Industrials (^DJI -0.31%) had fallen 210 points as of 12:30 p.m. EST, markets in two key commodities, oil and gold, soared in response to the situation.
Spot gold prices were up $25 to $1,354, reaching their highest level since last September. Gold has traditionally served a safe-haven role in times of uncertainty, although it has a spotty record when war breaks out. For instance, during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, gold initially spiked, but it quickly retreated as the American incursion into Iraq met with less resistance than many had originally feared. Similarly, gold jumped immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, but it gave up most of those gains by the end of October and stabilized -- even as it was gearing up for what would become a more-than-decade-long bull market for the yellow metal.
Still, even before the Crimea crisis began, gold had already rebounded significantly in 2014. Mining giants Barrick Gold (GOLD -1.50%) and Goldcorp (GG) are both up between 25% and 30% in the past three months, as investors began to believe that gold prices have hit bottom and could rise substantially from current levels, helping mining operations. In that light, the fact that Barrick and Goldcorp are up only in line with spot gold prices suggests that investors are taking news from Ukraine in stride rather than as a sign of a guaranteed short-term spike in price.
Of greater geopolitical importance, though, are the energy markets. Russia supplies a huge portion of the natural gas and oil that European nations use, and even though the winter is coming to an end, a disruption in those energy supplies to Europe could prove devastating to the continent's economy. Given that Europe is still trying to recover from a deep recession stemming from major structural problems in many eurozone countries, particularly on the southern part of the continent, heightened tension with Russia is coming at an especially bad time.
Still, the event shows the value of the U.S. boom in energy, as even though prices of West Texas Intermediate crude were up about $2 per barrel, that wasn't as big a climb as Brent crude experienced. Indeed, if global tensions cause the spread between WTI and Brent oil to widen again, it could be good news for the U.S. refining industry. Valero (VLO -0.70%), Marathon Petroleum (MPC -0.85%), and other refinery operations have enjoyed higher profits during times of instability elsewhere in the world, as they've been able to get crude at relatively low cost and sell refined products abroad at elevated prices.
A resolution to the crisis in the Crimea could bring all the price spikes in oil and gold to an abrupt end. For now, though, you can expect investors to gravitate toward safe-haven plays in the financial markets until the situation between Russia and Ukraine becomes clearer.