Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Vanguard’s emerging markets funds largely escape Russia’s market debacle. Here’s some that didn’t.

And it's fairly small. Some other fund investors weren't so lucky.

The New York Stock Exchange Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.  Russian President Vladimir Putin launched military action in Ukraine, prompting Washington and Europe to vow sanctions on Moscow roiled the global economy. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
The New York Stock Exchange Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin launched military action in Ukraine, prompting Washington and Europe to vow sanctions on Moscow roiled the global economy. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)Read moreSeth Wenig / AP

The Vanguard fund with the most exposure to Russia is its Emerging Markets Select Stock fund. And it has just 5% of assets in Russian equities.

It’s down just 4.3% for the year, compared with a drop of 3.66% for the category of diversified emerging markets funds.

That’s a relief for shareholders in these Vanguard funds, as the Russian ruble has plunged nearly 30% against the dollar, and the MOEX Russia Index, which tracks the 50 largest and most liquid Russian companies, fell 32% last week.

Still, the Malvern firm and other fund companies are for the moment stuck with whatever Russian stocks and bonds they hold. That’s because the Kremlin on Tuesday shut down any trading on the local Moscow-based stock exchange and, according to Reuters, temporarily blocked foreign investors from selling off their Russian holdings. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, putting a good face on a sticky situation, said the move would allow foreign investors the time to make a considered decision without political pressure, Reuters reported.

It’s not just stocks that could be out of reach for a long time; the Russian government and perhaps private companies could default on foreign debts.

Ratings company S&P Global recently downgraded Russia’s sovereign debt to junk status and Moody’s placed Russia on review. The Russian state had $478 billion in external debt at the end of last year, according to FactSet data. Russian companies and financial institutions hold $257 billion in U.S. dollar debt and 75 billion of euro-denominated debt, according to the Institute of International Finance.

For Vanguard, its emerging markets funds’ exposure to Russia proved to be small.

Two Russian companies, Lukoil and Sberbank, are in the active fund’s top-10 holdings. Despite, or probably because of that exposure to oil, the fund is down only 4.3% for the year.

The only funds with any exposure to Ukraine are the emerging markets bond funds.

“Vanguard investors’ exposure to the war in Ukraine can’t and shouldn’t be counted in dollars and cents, because it’s a rounding error,” said Dan Wiener, editor of the Independent Adviser for Vanguard Investors newsletter. “What’s more important is using the wealth and profits earned from investing in Vanguard funds to aid those who are most impacted by this devastating atrocity.”

Russia’s stock market is currently “uninvestable” following U.S. and other countries’ sanctions and central bank curbs, making a removal of Russian listings from global indexes a “natural next step,” a top executive at equity index provider MSCI said Monday.

“It would not make a lot of sense for us to continue to include Russian securities if our clients and investors cannot transact in the market,” Dimitris Melas, MSCI’s head of index research and chair of the Index Policy Committee, told Reuters.

For its part. Vanguard “is reviewing the various global sanctions and determining the impacts to our funds,” a spokesman said Tuesday.

Among active diversified emerging market funds with heavy Russian equity exposure, GQG Partners Emerging Markets Equity (GQGRX) has the highest reported exposure at more than 15%. Invesco Emerging Markets All Cap (GTDDX) has held an outsized position in Russia as well, more than 11%.

Harding Loevner Institutional Emerging Markets Fund (HLMEX) has 8.67% invested in Russian equities, compared with 5.2% for the typical diversified emerging-markets Morningstar category peer, according to Morningstar analyst William Samuel Rocco. Those bets come with high risks and high rewards, he wrote.

In a Feb. 1 report, he noted that three Russian stocks — state-owned Sberbank, the oil giant Lukoil, and the energy exploration and production company Novatek — were in the fund’s top-10 fund holdings as of Dec. 31, 2021, and the fund also owned the Russian internet company Yandex.

A Few Winners: Gold and Crypto

After Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into Ukraine, the price of gold, considered a safe haven by investors during times of turmoil, soared to a high of $1,972.50 on Feb. 24 before falling back to about the $1,900 level.

Cryptocurrencies are also rising in the face of geopolitical conflict and inflation, said Sean Bonner, CEO and co-founder of Guild Financial, a Philadelphia start-up trading platform.

“Our investors are showing tremendous interest in trading Proshares Bitcoin Strategy ETF,” which trades under the symbol BITO, he said. “At this point, cryptocurrencies are lookin more stable than the ruble, and they can act as a hedge against inflation.”

How long could it take for the U.S. market to recover? One money manager said that since World War II there have been 26 market corrections of more than 10% with an average decline of 13.7%. Recoveries have taken four months, on average.

“It’s called a correction because, historically, the drop often ‘corrects’ and returns prices to their longer-term trend. However, historically, most corrections have not become bear markets,” said Phil Gocke, a Philadelphia-based money manager with Opus Investments.

There have been 24 market corrections since November 1974, he said, but only five of them became bear markets: 1980, 1987, 2000, 2007, and 2020.