A currency trader passes by screens showing foreign exchange rates at the foreign exchange dealing room of the KEB Hana Bank headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. Asian stocks followed Wall Street lower on Thursday as anxiety about the economic fallout from rising coronavirus infections in the United States and Europe clashed with optimism about a possible vaccine. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

S&P/TSX composite down, oil tops US$100 a barrel

Rising commodity prices, including oil topping US$100 per barrel, helped to partially insulate Canada’s main stock index from steeper losses on U.S. markets caused by an escalating Russia-Ukraine crisis.

“Ukraine tensions are ratcheting up and is having a bigger drag on markets today, versus what’s happened over the last few days and it’s really taking a bite out of risk assets,” said Craig Jerusalim, portfolio manager at CIBC Asset Management.

“The safe-haven assets like gold, telecoms, utilities are all catching a bid and energy is having the biggest outperformance day.”

The price of crude oil surged to a near eight-year high, climbing eight per cent on fears about Russian energy supplies being affected following its invasion of Ukraine.

The April crude oil contract was up US$7.69 at US$103.41 per barrel after hitting an intraday high of US$106.78 per barrel. The April natural gas contract was up 17.1 cents at US$4.57 per mmBTU.

That pushed Tourmaline Oil Corp. and Vermilion Energy Inc. up 4.6 and 3.8 per cent, respectively.

In fact, crude oil prices increased further even after the International Energy Agency agreed to a 60-million-barrel release from oil reserves into the global markets.

“Now that might sound like a lot, but it’s really only about 14 hours of global demand. So it’s really just a short-term fix and it’s unlikely to have much of an impact,” Jerusalim said in an interview.

“By far the biggest impact will be what happens with Russian sanctions and their ability to maintain supply lines.”

Other commodities, including gold, silver, copper, aluminum and corn, were also higher on supply disruption fears.

Materials led the TSX, gaining 2.5 per cent with Endeavour Silver Corp. increasing 12 per cent and Fortuna Silver Mines Inc. up 9.7 per cent.

The April gold contract was up US$43.10 at US$1,943.80 an ounce and the May copper contract was up 14.2 cents at US$4.60 a pound.

Overall, the S&P/TSX composite index closed down 121.85 points to 21,004.51 to start March, but the decline was less significant than south of the border.

In New York, the Dow Jones industrial average was down 597.65 points at 33,294.95. The S&P 500 index was down 67.68 points at 4,306.26, while the Nasdaq composite was down 218.94 points at 13,532.46.

The Canadian dollar lost some ground despite higher crude prices and economic growth surpassing expectations by coming in at an annualized rate of 6.7 per cent in the fourth quarter.

The loonie traded for 78.69 cents US compared with 78.75 cents US on Monday.

Despite dipping, it outperformed other global currencies as investors turned to the safe haven of the U.S. dollar.

Weakness by the auto parts companies, led by a 7.9 per cent fall by Magna International Inc., drove the consumer discretionary sector down 3.3 per cent.

Health care lost 2.1 per cent as shares of cannabis producer Cronos Group Inc. fell as its net loss increased in its latest quarter despite higher revenues.

It was followed by the heavyweight financials sector, which lost 1.9 per cent, despite strong quarterly results from BMO and Scotiabank and the likelihood of the Bank of Canada hiking interest rates on Wednesday. TD shares continued to fall, losing another 3.3 per cent, following its decision to buy U.S.-based First Horizon for US$13.4 billion.

The sector’s weakness Tuesday was caused by lower U.S. bond yields and diminishing enthusiasm for aggressive rate hikes by central banks because of geopolitical tensions in eastern Europe.

“We’re still probably going to get rate hikes later this month, but what we’re beginning to expect is fewer rate hikes this year than were anticipated even just a few weeks ago, so that’s put pressure on interest rate-sensitive stocks like financials,” Jerusalim said.