Markets & Stocks

Wall Street's warriors weigh the war
Market participants with military experience look for a tougher slog in Iraq than most traders do.
March 20, 2003: 3:16 PM EST
By Justin Lahart, CNN/Money Staff Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - When President Bush addressed the country Wednesday night to announce the beginning of U.S.-led military operations against Iraq, he warned against taking the war too cavalierly.

"A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict," he said.

And if any one group has been predicting a quick and easy war, it is the stock traders who sent the Dow Jones industrial average up almost 10 percent in the week preceding the first missile strike against Iraq. But for some market participants, whose military experience extends beyond beating their kid brother at Risk and having a copy of "The Green Berets" on DVD, the idea that what is already being dubbed Gulf War II will go as easily as Gulf War I did seem like pure foolishness.

"What the heck are these traders talking about when they say this is going to be a quick and clean war? What does that mean?" said Brooks Tucker, a client advisor for Deutsche Bank Alex. Brown's private client division who served in a Marine infantry battalion during the Gulf War.

Make no mistake: Tucker believes that the United States' operation will be successful. But, drawing on his Desert Storm experience from 1991, Tucker thinks the march to Baghdad will take time.

For one thing, he points out, there is the simple matter of distance. The 75-mile push into Kuwait City in March 1991 took three days. To reach Baghdad, U.S. forces will need to travel about 375 miles. Do the math, and that suggests that it will take at least two weeks. And then, remember that the Iraqi army was not entrenched in Kuwait like it is in its home country. Even absent conflict, just trying to navigate minefields can take time.

Tucker also strongly suspects that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will resort to using chemical weapons at some point, an eventuality he doesn't think traders have steeled themselves for.

"They start throwing chemical weapons around," he said, "and that's going to spook the market, even if it's just for a few days."

Tom Petrie, a former West Pointer with Vietnam experience, who co-founded the energy investment bank and research firm Petrie Parkman, shares Tucker's concerns.

"I'm working under the hypothesis that this will go fairly quickly. That doesn't mean I think it's going to be pretty," he said. "This is going to be a real test. It should not be thought of as Gulf War II. It's going to be a military campaign with its own character and personality."

Petrie has long reckoned that Saddam Hussein would do some damage to Iraqi oil fields -- something which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld indicated had begun to happen on Thursday.

"And I'll be surprised if Saddam doesn't use chemical weapons," said Petrie. "He knows this is it, this is for all the marbles."

Petrie thinks that once decisive signs emerge that the war is going well, the market rally will continue, but he worries that at war's conclusion a sobering reality will set in. The task of rebuilding Iraq, a country that has been ruled by Hussein for 24 years, will be difficult. And the notion that Iraqi oil will be able to quickly come back on line, both easing energy costs and helping pay for the rebuilding effort, doesn't make sense to him. At this point Iraq's oil infrastructure is put together with "baling wire and chewing gum," according to Petrie.

Tucker, too, wonders what the end of the war will bring.

"I'm not sure how the war solves a lot because you have to have confidence that somehow beyond war, the economy is getting stronger," he said. "I don't know if there's a direct correlation between the war ending and a CEO saying, 'Oh, the war's ended -- now we can start spending on all that stuff we haven't spent on yet'."  Top of page

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