Russian wooden dolls depicting U.S. President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a souvenir street shop in St. Petersburg on Feb. 20. (Dmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

Financial markets have been sending an interesting message about President Trump and Russia. After Trump’s election, investors seemed to be betting that sanctions against Moscow would soon be eased. But this confidence collapsed in late January, and Russian stocks plummeted.

The numbers tell the story: From Nov. 7, the day before the election, to Jan. 27, the MICEX index of leading Russian stocks rose 26 percent. The index for Russian financial stocks increased 19 percent over that same period. But this upward momentum suddenly reversed: As of Tuesday, the MICEX index had fallen 10.4 percent from its January peak, and the financial measure had dropped 6.5 percent.

What happened on Jan. 27? After weeks of negative stories about possible links between members of Trump’s campaign and Russia, the new president told a news conference it was “very early to be talking about” removing sanctions. Regarding a call scheduled the next day with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump said blandly that he would “see what happens.” And according to both sides, the call produced only vague pledges to cooperate against terrorism.

Economists debate whether markets distill expectations about policy or whether they’re closer to a “random walk.” But in this case, the turnaround looks very rational indeed. Investors believed something would happen and then decided it might not.

A good summary of market expectations was a Bloomberg News story published Dec. 20, headlined “Trump Seen Paying Off for Putin with Sanctions Relief Coming.” The story cited a Bloomberg survey of economists that month in which 55 percent of respondents predicted that the penalties imposed after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea would be lifted over the next 12 months. Only two months before, when the polls were predicting that Trump would lose, just 10 percent of those surveyed had expected any quick easing of sanctions.

(Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

The website of Russia Today, described by U.S. intelligence as a Kremlin propaganda outlet, published a jubilant Dec. 21 story noting the Bloomberg poll and predicting, “Donald Trump’s election is expected to bring fundamental changes in U.S. foreign policy.”

Among the biggest cheerleaders for a Trump move to end sanctions were the chief executives of Sberbank and VTB Group, two big Moscow banks partly owned by the Russian government. Both have been targets of U.S. sanctions, squeezing their ability to borrow or move money in the West.

“I think Mr. Trump should remove sanctions against the four leading Russian banks,” said Andrey Kostin, VTB’s chief, in a Jan. 19 story published by RT. “It would be very helpful. [The sanctions] didn’t kill us . . . but of course that very much made our future not as bright as we expected,” he explained. VTB surfaced in the so-called Panama Papers as an alleged money-laundering tool for Putin, a charge the bank denies.

“Trump is a president of changes,” said Herman Gref, the chief executive of Sberbank, in a Dec. 28 interview with the newspaper Vedomosti. “I have met Trump and my impression from the interaction is very positive. I know several people from his team,” said Gref, who has been a close Putin adviser, in a translation of the interview published by Newsweek.

Gref had indeed met Trump, in November 2013, when the mogul was in Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant. Gref invited Trump to a two-hour dinner at the Moscow branch of Nobu restaurant. “There was a good feeling from the meeting. He’s a sensible person . . . [with] a good attitude toward Russia,” Gref told Bloomberg News in a Dec. 21 story.

Trump apparently felt the same way. Bloomberg quotes his comment about the Moscow dinner to Real Estate Weekly after he returned to New York that month. “The Russian market is attracted to me. Almost all of the oligarchs were in the room.”

For the Russian banks, it has undoubtedly been disappointing to see Trump back away from any quick easing of sanctions. Sberbank shares sold in Britain, which rose 35 percent from Nov. 4 to Jan. 27, have since fallen 3.4 percent. VTB’s British shares, which jumped 20 percent on pro-Trump enthusiasm, have slipped 4.5 percent since their January high.

These financial machinations illustrate one little-examined reason why it matters whether former national security adviser Michael Flynn talked to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about sanctions before the inauguration, or whether anyone from the Trump campaign had contact with Russian officials.

These issues don’t just interest journalists or Trump’s critics in Congress. They move markets. The Trump trade was looking like a winner for Moscow, but now, not so much.

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