STR/AFP/Getty Images
Markets may be a sea of calm, but geopolitics are anything but. We have our eyes on 10 geopolitical risks and are tracking their likelihood and potential market impact.

So which ones are we most worried about? Here are our top three right now, with the second and third particularly interrelated.

The fourth round of North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) renegotiations ended this week, with Mexico and Canada rejecting what they view as harsh U.S. proposals. Still, news reports did suggest apparent progress on less contentious parts of the agreement, and the negotiations aren’t over. The next round of talks are scheduled to take place in Mexico next month.

Our base case is that successful negotiations will be completed in early 2018. However, our hopes for this outcome have recently diminished given tough positions from U.S. negotiators and threatening rhetoric from U.S. President Donald Trump that has resulted in greater uncertainty. Market risks are biased to the downside given that a good outcome is priced in, in both Canadian and Mexican markets.
North Korea
We view North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons program as a major threat to regional stability, U.S. security and nuclear non-proliferation. The possibility of armed conflict has risen, we believe, given North Korea’s missile launches over Japan, a nuclear test and an intense war of words. This has raised the chance of misstep or miscalculation, and we could see limited action such as the shooting down of missiles.

Yet we currently see a low probability of all-out war; the costs are too high on all sides. Instead, we expect the U.S. to intensify its “peaceful pressure” campaign, evident in imposing unilateral sanctions and leaning hard on China to participate. We see the crisis straining U.S.-China relations just as economic tensions are rising.
Deteriorating U.S.-China relations
We see frictions between the U.S. and China heating up over time. The countries risk falling into the “Thucydides Trap,” a term coined by Harvard scholar Graham Allison to describe clashes between rising powers and established ones. We see trade and market access disputes straining an increasingly competitive U.S.-China relationship in the long run, and believe markets have yet to factor in this gradual deterioration.

In the short term, tensions could rise if Chinese President Xi Jinping pursues an even more nationalistic agenda in the wake of the National People’s Congress. Economic tit for tats could lead to an erosion of relations—and have sector-specific effects.

U.S. military action against North Korea and/or an accidental clash in the South China Sea would deal a blow to the relationship, in our view, and hurt risk assets. But our base case is that the U.S. and China avoid these land mines in the short term, and try to use President Trump’s upcoming visit to emphasize cooperation.

So what does this all mean for portfolios? Most geopolitical shocks have short-lived market impacts, except in regions directly affected. We view long-term government bonds as useful diversifiers against volatility and equity market selloffs sparked by such shocks.

Mateos y Lago is BlackRock’s chief multi-asset strategist.