Russian Exposure in Your Portfolio

Our exposure to Russian stocks is very low, and we don’t have any exposure to Ukrainian stocks.

To figure out our exposure, I looked at our holdings as of Friday and found that we have 2.6 percent of all of the money outside of the 401k plans that we manage in emerging markets stocks.

Although we hold more than a dozen diversified emerging markets-based mutual funds and ETFs, 92.2 percent of the money is in the three largest funds, which are managed by Vanguard, iShares, and DFA.

Then, I looked on Morningstar to see how much each fund had in Russia, and as of Jan 31, the most recent data available, the percentage ranged from 0.9 percent to 2.8 percent.

I found that if we applied the January 31st percentages to the March 4th holdings, I found that the exposure was approximately $1.1 million, or 0.06 percent of the total assets.

Of course, there’s an obvious problem with the analysis: the weight to Russian stocks has dropped substantially since Jan 31st. It’s hard to tell exactly, but the value of Russian stocks has probably fallen by 80 to 100 percent, so our exposure is probably somewhere between zero and $250k.

The economic sanctions imposed by the US and others have effectively shut down Russian stocks. The Russian stock exchange is closed, settlements can’t happen without the ability to send funds across borders, trading the ruble isn’t allowed, and the custodians that hold the stocks are closed too.

Despite all of that, Russian ETFs still traded part of last week in the US, even though no one could value the underlying securities and the normal trading mechanisms were off-limits.

As a result, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) suspended trading of three Russia-oriented ETFs on Friday. Fortunately, we don’t have any exposure to these three funds.

The index providers that Vanguard and iShares track, FTSE and MSCI, announced last week that they were cutting Russia from the indexes, which creates an interesting issue (interesting because the dollars at stake are small, as noted above).

When the index providers cut an index, they make a few keystrokes, and, POOF, the exposure is gone. The funds don’t have that luxury, which highlights the difference between indexes and index funds.

In theory, Vanguard or iShares could mark their Russian stock holdings at zero so that they match the index, but if the stocks have some value, even just a little bit, that doesn’t seem quite right since they are supposed to report the fair value of the holdings.

They could make the argument that the fair value is zero since they really can’t do anything with them, and at the point, they start trading again, remark them and see what happens.

My reading of their press releases is that they are going to take a wait-and-see approach and that we should expect the funds not to track the indexes as closely as usual. I suspect that the differences will be small since the weights are so small at this point.

DFA doesn’t track indexes, so their press release indicated that they would divest their holdings as markets allow. That probably means that they’ll have to keep their holdings since buyers are few and far between, but it’s hard to say.

There are press accounts of hedge funds and other investors scooping up Russian stocks and other securities at what they assume are bargain prices.

In theory, some of the investments could come back. I’m not familiar with many Russian stocks, but they have a large energy company, Gazprom, that will have all of the equipment to pull oil and gas out of the earth and transport it to buyers. Even though the stock may not be trading, it’s probably not worthless either. That said, I wouldn’t buy it.

I should also note that we don’t have any exposure to Russian bonds. Only one client has an emerging markets bond fund, and it appears to have some Russian and Ukrainian bonds, but we didn’t buy it without the client asking for it.

We’ve assiduously avoided emerging-markets bonds, despite their high yields. One of the largest emerging-market bond funds has an SEC yield of about five percent, but hasn’t done much better than the US bond market over the last decade.

This particular fund has also been subject to some pretty severe drawdowns, including an 11.1 percent loss so far this year. The US bond market has suffered too, down -3.1 percent, but that’s pretty tame compared to the emerging markets bond loss.

I’m also glad that we didn’t lend money to Putin’s Russia, which is what you’re doing when you buy a bond. We didn’t avoid emerging market bonds for that reason, but I’m satisfied with it nonetheless.

Of course, all of these details about our tiny direct exposure to Russia overlooks the big exposure that we all have, in that all investments are affected by this war.

Although the S&P 500 doesn’t generate much earnings in Russia or Ukraine, it’s selling off anyway because there is a ton of uncertainty about where things go from here. European stocks are down because their economies will suffer more directly, energy prices are higher and the political risk of emerging markets stocks are top of mind.

As I noted last week, though, although we couldn’t and didn’t see any of this coming, we had the appropriate exposure in the first place.

We didn’t have any large direct bets on Russia (or any other specific country), we underweight emerging markets stocks compared to the global indexes, and we don’t have any emerging markets bonds.

I don’t think watching the news is any easier knowing that our direct exposure is low, it’s still tragic. It’s hard to imagine, but hopefully, this week will be better than the last.