After a historic run from the end of October through March, US markets pulled back in April with S&P 500 returning -4.2% from its all-time high. Concerns around geopolitical tensions in the Middle East, sticky inflation, and uncertainty regarding rate cuts led to a market decline, pushing the VIX index of stock market volatility to its highest level in six months. In times of market stress, it’s important for investors to maintain perspective on the critical issues and not overreact to headlines. How can investors understand and weather this period of market volatility?

Rising geopolitical tensions add to market uncertainty


First, tensions escalated in the Middle East due to an attack by Iran on Israel, the first time a direct strike has occurred between the two nations. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas only a year and a half later have already destabilized Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and this latest escalation added fuel to the fire worsening the current geopolitical situation. Without diminishing the tragic loss of life and destruction from these conflicts, investors must weigh how such events might impact the global economy, markets, and their portfolios. These events are difficult to analyze, and their outcomes are challenging to predict since they depend on the actions of individuals and groups with complex histories and motivations.

However, history shows that while geopolitics can impact markets, the effects are typically short-lived. The accompanying chart highlights market returns following major geopolitical events this century. Some events, such as 9/11, changed the world order and had long-lasting effects, even though it was primarily the dot-com bust that led to poor market performance. Other events, such as the war in Ukraine, resulted in higher oil prices which affected inflation and monetary policy. Most of these events did not have long-lasting effects on markets once the situation stabilized.

While today’s conflicts will be closely watched, investors ought to avoid passing judgment with their portfolios. In the long run, markets tend to recover and perform well primarily because business cycles are what matter over years and decades, despite the events that take place over weeks and months.

Stubborn inflation has markets rethinking the number of rate cuts


Second, many measures of inflation have proven to be more stubborn than economists had hoped. The latest Consumer Price Index (CPI) report for March showed that headline inflation remained hotter than anticipated at 3.5% year-over-year, while core inflation, which excludes food and energy prices, rose 3.8%. Rising shelter costs, i.e., the cost of renting and owning a home, are a large reason inflation has not cooled as quickly.

Combined with the resilient labor market, up until recently, investors anticipated that the Fed might even go for a hike instead of a rate cut in the near term, however, in the recent FOMC meeting, the Fed outrightly rejected the potential for rate hikes and delivered a more dovish guidance on the probability of rate cuts despite slower progress than hoped for on inflation.

As always, it’s important for investors to keep these expectations in perspective. What matters for long-term investing is the direction of policy and not the exact timing or magnitude of rate cuts. There are still risks to the Fed’s outlook and the monthly inflation numbers, especially if oil prices rise further due to geopolitical conflicts. However, even if this were to occur, inflation is far more manageable today and no longer requires an emergency monetary response.

Investors should always be prepared for market volatility


Finally, investors should keep the level of market volatility in perspective as well. While the recent market decline is the largest since the start of the year, this follows a 10.6% total return in the first quarter. Since last October when the market began to rally, the S&P 500 has gained 28% including dividends. Since the bear market bottom in 2022, the market has gained over 50%.

The accompanying chart shows that the average year experiences significant pullbacks and that this year’s has been small by comparison. Despite these short-term challenges, markets tend to recover and often end on positive notes. This is why maintaining a diversified portfolio can help minimize short-term risk and increase the odds of financial success over time, regardless of whether markets are volatile due to the economy, the Fed, geopolitics, or other factors.

The bottom line? Markets have struggled at the start of the second quarter due to changing expectations around the Fed and escalating geopolitical tensions. Staying level-headed and keeping these events in perspective are still the best ways to achieve long-term financial goals.

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