While Ukraine is well known as an agricultural nation and energy transit hub, its role as a major manufacturing centre is not appreciated as much. Going back to the former Cold War economies in the 1970s and 1980s, much of the manufacturing capacity and high-technology development of the former Soviet Union was based in Ukraine. Today, Ukraine has an important role in global manufacturing supply chains in terms of finished products and intermediate manufacturing to supply parts to German auto manufacturers and other key industries in Western Europe.
The immediate impact of the war in Ukraine on global manufacturing supply chains was reported on 27 February 2022 by The Wall Street Journal:
‘Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is piling new troubles onto the world’s already battered supply chains. The fighting has shut down car factories in Germany that rely on made-in-Ukraine components and hit supplies for the steel industry as far as Japan. It has severed airways and land routes that had become crucial since the pandemic began gumming up sea trade.
‘Economists and business leaders fear this will hit supply chains that rely on components and little-known commodities from Russia such as neon gas and palladium, important ingredients to make semiconductors. Industries such as car manufacturing have already been disrupted by a surge in demand after the easing of pandemic lockdowns and persistent production bottlenecks…
‘Volkswagen AG said that it could no longer get wiring systems produced in Ukraine and would have to stop production at plants in Zwickau in eastern Germany, the most important factory in VW’s push into electric vehicles, and Dresden for several days this week. VW said it would have to furlough more than 8,000 workers until it could resume production.’
Global supply chains are only as strong as their weakest link. This commonplace observation applies with a particular vengeance to the semiconductor supply chain. Most highly advanced semiconductors come from Taiwan, South Korea, or the US. Some less technically advanced semiconductors are produced by China.
There are very few products today that don’t have semiconductors. Your washing machine, dishwasher, refrigerator, and other appliances all have semiconductors to control settings (and to communicate with manufacturer databases). A typical new automobile has more than 1,400 semiconductors. In short, any disruption in semiconductor supply chains has an adverse impact on every supply chain in the world.
The US has threatened to cut off exports of semiconductors and sophisticated machinery to Russia. This type of thoughtless embargo ignores the rest of the supply chain. How are semiconductors actually made? One of the key processes involves the etching of minute circuits on silicon wafers. This etching process is done with precision lasers. The lasers are powered with a processed form of neon gas. It’s the case that 90% of world exports of neon gas come from Russia and Ukraine. More than 65% of this neon gas is processed by a single company based in Odesa, Ukraine.
In short, if the US and EU embargo semiconductor exports to Russia, Russia will embargo shipments of processed neon gas from Odesa. Once existing stocks are used up, this gas embargo could cripple semiconductor production, which would bring the production of consumer durables, automobiles, electronics, and many other products to a halt. When it comes to semiconductors, a trade war with Russia is an example of ‘be careful what you wish for’. If the US cuts off semiconductors to Russia, large parts of the global economy could shut down once Russia retaliates by turning off neon gas supplies.
Strategic metals dependence
As if disruptions to energy, food, and semiconductors weren’t enough, Russia has a chokehold on many of the most critical strategic metals in the world. Russia is home to the third-largest titanium producer in the world, VSMPO-AVISMA. That company is owned by Rostec, a State-controlled holding company run by an ex-KGB officer and friend of Putin.
Russia and Ukraine together control 30% of the global output of titanium. This metal is critical to aircraft manufacturing. Boeing obtains about 35% of its titanium supplies from Russia. These are used in the manufacture of engines, fans, and airframes. Airbus gets more than 50% of its titanium from Russia. As US and EU sanctions on Russia damage the Russian economy, Putin can be expected to return the favour by cutting off titanium exports, which would have a devastating impact on global aircraft production.
Russia is also a major global supplier of aluminium, which is used in everything from aircraft to automobiles to consumer appliances and more. Putin’s response to sanctions would be the same. As Russia is cut off from supplies of finished products, it will cut off its exports of source materials, which will then damage the entire global economy. Aluminium prices have risen 20% just in the past two months and will go much higher as these threats play out.
The world has a similar dependence on Russia and Ukraine for palladium, platinum, nickel, cobalt, copper, and vanadium. In particular, nickel and cobalt are critical in manufacturing electric vehicle batteries. Palladium is a key input in catalytic converters.
Even in cases where the world has alternate sources of supply for some of these metals, such sources aren’t necessarily available on short notice. Supply chain participants prefer long-term contracts and stable logistics channels. This means that suppliers can’t immediately take on new customers and shippers can’t easily redirect vessels to new destinations. These adjustments can take months or years to implement. In the meantime, shortages increase, and prices increase even faster.
Conclusion: Investment opportunities emerging from the chaos
Trade and financial sanctions are a double-edged sword. It’s possible to cut off Russia from imports of needed goods and services. It is also possible to exclude Russia from financial systems and payment channels. But trade and finance are a two-way street.
The targeted party — in this case, Russia — can retaliate by prohibiting its own exports of critical commodities of food, energy, metals, and chemicals. These inputs are critical to manufactured outputs and even to the ability to avoid starvation. Even powerful financial sanctions have workarounds involving friendly third-party banks, non-reserve currencies, and barter that uses gold as the ultimate form of money.
The war will not go on indefinitely. If Russia fails to conquer Ukraine, we can expect turmoil inside the Kremlin and a possible regime change. If Russia does conquer Ukraine, it will emerge from the war even stronger, while NATO will be shown to be a dysfunctional alliance of little real military import.
The US loses either way. The US looks weak for not being able to stop the war with diplomacy. It looks even weaker for not being able to assist Ukraine in timely and effective ways. And it may emerge relatively weaker if Russia is successful in implementing its regional hegemony. This will be the legacy of weak leadership by Biden and his recent Afghanistan retreat, which left some Americans dead, and others abandoned behind enemy lines. Putin took notes during the Afghanistan debacle and acted accordingly in Ukraine.
The most long-term legacies of the war in Ukraine will be disrupted supply chains, shortages of consumer goods, and much higher prices. Modern supply chains took 30 years to build and are being blown up in a matter of months. They’ll take years to rebuild.
The resulting market disruption doesn’t leave investors helpless. There are numerous attractive investment opportunities emerging from the chaos, including under-priced energy stocks, agricultural producers, mining plays, and long positions in commodities markets.
Strategist, The Daily Reckoning Australia
This content was originally published by Jim Rickards’ Strategic Intelligence Australia, a financial advisory newsletter designed to help you protect your wealth and potentially profit from unseen world events. Learn more here.