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Dow slides 598 points amid sanctions, escalation in Ukraine

Stocks skidded and oil prices blew past $100 per barrel as investors anticipated disruptions to energy markets

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Feb. 28. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg News)

Volatility raged on Wall Street Tuesday, with the Dow dropping 1.77 percent as investors monitored the cascading effects of sweeping government sanctions and Russia’s growing aggression toward Ukraine.

A round of talks between delegations from Russia and Ukraine at the border of Belarus failed to deliver tangible progress Monday, the lack of resolution injecting further volatility into global markets that have already been alarmed over the conflict. On Tuesday, Russian forces threatened Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, with a 40-mile convoy of tanks, troops and artillery, while bombardment continued in Kharkiv, its second-largest city.

After staging a fragile comeback to start the week, the Dow Jones closed down 598 points, or nearly 1.8 percent. The broader S&P 500 index slid 1.5 percent, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq edged 1.6 percent lower. All three indexes are down 8 percent or more year to date.

Cboe’s volatility index, known as Wall Street’s “fear gauge,” was up nearly 14 percent on Tuesday, signaling that March will likely see a continuation of the wild swings that have dominated 2022 trading so far.

European indexes also closed in negative territory, with Russia-exposed indexes suffering steep losses: Germany’s DAX and France’s CAC40 both closed down nearly 4 percent, while the benchmark Stoxx 600 index gave up about 2.4 percent.

Although markets normally look past geopolitical tensions, Russia’s mounting aggression toward Ukraine and the avalanche of financial consequences Russia is now facing have been in key focus for investors. Stocks have been moving in lockstep with headlines because of Russia’s role as a major global oil producer: Disruptions to energy markets and other commodities will exacerbate inflation that is already at a four-decade high.

Lauren Goodwin, an economist at New York Life Investments, said that stocks could recover if evidence emerges that points to a “contained conflict and lighter sanctions,” but warned that they will face more volatility in “moments of escalation.” In comments emailed Tuesday to The Washington Post, Goodwin called the invasion “one of the most meaningful geopolitical events in decades.”

“It is also taking place alongside a global transition from a two-year pandemic, and in a time of unprecedented monetary policy unwind,” Goodwin noted. “Both of these realities are clear drivers of the economy and markets ahead.”

Russia-Ukraine live updates

Paradoxically, the inflationary fears have also driven some feeble rallies as investors hope that “current global events will cause the Fed to pull back on its recent hawkish shift, driving increasing cash flows back into stocks,” Ivan Feinseth, chief investment officer at Tigress Financial Partners, said Tuesday in comments emailed to The Post.

Oil prices surged past multiyear highs Tuesday as investors anticipated disruptions to energy markets, which could quickly ripple through the global economy. Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, gained 0.6 percent to trade around $105.82 per barrel. West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. oil benchmark, rose 8.8 percent, to trade around $104.50 per barrel.

On Tuesday, the International Energy Agency announced the coordinated release of 60 million barrels of oil reserves in an effort to relieve some pressure.

U.S., other world powers to tap strategic oil reserves in bid to ease gasoline prices

The tensions sent investors flocking toward safer assets. Gold, a Russian export and safe haven in times of turmoil, climbed 2.2 percent to trade around $1,946.20 per troy ounce. Government bonds, another safe haven, saw major activity, with the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note careening as low as 1.728 percent. Bond yields move inversely to prices.

On Monday, the U.S. government and its European allies introduced sweeping penalties that banned all people in the United States and the European Union from trading with Russia’s central bank. The sanctions also apply to Russia’s Finance Ministry and its sovereign wealth fund. In recent days, officials had also moved to bar several major Russian banks from SWIFT (a global monetary transfer service), crack down on Russian oligarchs and prevent Russia’s central bank from bailing out the domestic economy.

Meanwhile, Russia’s struggling economy came under further pressure from corporate action, with shipping giant Maersk freezing bookings of cargo in and out of the country and Visa and Mastercard blocking its financial institutions. Russians can now only access the ailing ruble, which Russia’s central bank tried to prop up by raising its key interest rate to 20 percent. ATMs were flooded as Russians tried to access funds amid the plunge.

What is SWIFT, and why does it matter in the Russia-Ukraine war?

So far, government sanctions have not targeted Russia’s energy sector in a meaningful way. Although Ukraine has requested that the European Union impose an embargo on Russian oil and gas imports, that is unlikely to happen, according to Pavel Molchanov, an energy analyst with Raymond James.

Giants such as Shell, BP and General Motors have announced plans to suspend or end their dealings with Russia in wake of the sanctions. These divestment gestures are largely symbolic, “simply changing shareholder A to shareholder B,” Molchanov told The Post in an email. But when a major bank or insurance company refuses to provide actual services, that has a “tangible effect” on the business of Russian energy companies being targeted, he said.

“In essence, this is the private sector equivalent of sanctions,” Molchanov said. “Just as foreign central banks will no longer cooperate with Russia’s central bank, it would be a big deal for major international commercial banks to stop working with Gazprom, Rosneft or Lukoil.”

Britain added to a long list of economic punishments it had already adopted by banning Russian-owned ships from docking in U.K. ports, and even Switzerland suspended its centuries-old policy of neutrality and isolation to say it would join the E.U. in closing its airspace to Russian flights and imposing sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials.

Russian markets were closed for the second straight day Tuesday as Russia tried to keep money from flooding out of its economy, which was already showing signs of severe distress before the new measures were implemented. Last week, as the incursion into Ukraine unfolded, Moscow’s MOEX index endured one of the steepest equity crashes in its stock market history.

Putin has promised a tough response to sanctions, which he called “illegitimate.” Putin put Russia’s nuclear force on higher alert, a move quickly condemned by the United States and NATO. U.S. businesses have been warned to prepare for possible cyberattacks, and President Biden has acknowledged the crisis could lead to higher gasoline prices but said that limiting pain Americans feel at the pump is “critical.”

Wiley partner Nazak Nikakhtar, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Commerce Department, said she thinks the crisis will weigh on numerous industries as European fuel-buyers look for substitutes to Russian oil and natural gas.

“Every sector is impacted by energy,” she said. “When we have less global supply that can be traded, we’re going to see pretty significant price increases that may exceed unprecedented levels. I don’t think we’ve seen supply shocks of this magnitude in recent history.”

The national average cost for a gallon of gas in the U.S. was $3.61 on Tuesday according to AAA, up about 25 cents from a month ago.

Consumer-facing costs are already piling up in the wake of Russia’s move Monday to ban air carriers from 36 countries, including European nations and Canada, from its massive, highly trafficked airspace after the European Union took similar action against Russian airlines. This will force major airlines to take longer, more circuitous routes to Asia and the Middle East, likely increasing the cost of ticket prices and jet fuel for travelers.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.