How Do Markets React to Pandemics and Other Investor Questions

by James Liu, CFA / on March 5, 2020

Investors and economists have been squarely focused on the spread of the new coronavirus and its impact on the global economy. Government efforts to contain the spread of the virus have already impacted economic activity in China and other parts of the world, creating significant economic uncertainty. This has resulted in a stock market pullback over the past two weeks that some have referred to as the “coronavirus correction” and “virus volatility.” Investors naturally still have many questions about what lies ahead from a long-term perspective.

There is perhaps no topic that can inspire more public fear and panic than a viral outbreak. It’s for exactly this reason that investors should continue to maintain level heads and see through short-term noise. In order to objectively understand what these issues mean in the long run, it’s helpful to disentangle the topics of public health, the global economy and recent market reactions by addressing the following questions:

How widespread is the coronavirus?
How have markets reacted to past epidemics/pandemics?
Will coronavirus cause a recession?
Why did the Fed cut interest rates?
How might the market respond in the coming months?

When it comes down to it, it’s important for investors to maintain perspective in times of uncertainty. After all, the goal of long-term investing is to achieve financial goals over the course of years and decades. What happens in the intervening days, weeks or even months might not only be immaterial, but overreacting to these events can actually be harmful. Investors who can stay disciplined are more likely to achieve financial success.

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1. How widespread is the coronavirus?

The coronavirus has spread quickly since the end of January and is now reportedly on every populated continent. Since most investors, including ourselves, are not public health experts, the spread of coronavirus is the most uncertain and difficult issue to analyze. In this instance, we must rely on expert opinions and published data while not jumping to conclusions.

At the moment, the data show that confirmed cases continue to rise globally but are slowing in China. The mortality rate, as reported, has been around 3%, depicted as the shallow red line on the chart above, with most deaths occurring for those who are elderly or have pre-existing conditions. The corresponding recovery rate has been rising. The overall numbers are magnitudes smaller in absolute terms compared to the seasonal flu, although the mortality rate is significantly higher.

Thus, although it’s still unclear when and if the virus will be contained, the bigger challenge from a markets standpoint is the potential for unnecessary fear and panic. Viral epidemics are by their nature scary subjects and, in our everyday lives, it’s difficult to not react. When it comes to our investment strategies, however, panic is the least useful emotion.

2. How have markets reacted to past epidemics/pandemics?

Understanding the history of epidemics and pandemics helps to provide some limited guidance. Prior episodes over the past two decades, including SARS, avian bird flu, H1N1, MERS, Ebola and Zika, resulted in public attention but had few lasting market reactions. In fact, other factors played much larger roles in each episode.

The chart above highlights these cases and uses Google Trends data to pinpoint the periods of peak public concern. In each case, markets dipped briefly – often for other reasons – before recovering over the coming months and quarters.

These “other reasons” are important. The SARS outbreak occurred in the wake of the tech bubble which affected markets for years. Avian influenza occurred during the housing boom, MERS and Ebola during the Eurozone crisis, and Zika coincided with an oil price crash and period of concern over Fed rate hikes.

Even today, with coronavirus front and center in the headlines, investors have been concerned about cycle-high valuations, slowing earnings growth and the presidential elections. So, while it may be convenient to pin a market pullback on one specific cause, in reality there are always many factors at play. Investors should continue to watch longer-term trends around the economy and company fundamentals.

Of course, these past cases were of smaller magnitudes with mostly localized impacts, making direct comparisons difficult. The current trajectory suggests that this episode could be different depending on the ultimate economic impact.

3. Will coronavirus cause a recession?

The effort to contain the spread of coronavirus in many countries has already had an impact on supply chains. The outbreak in China also coincided with the lunar new year, effectively prolonging the period during which industrial activity was shut down. U.S. companies have been reporting supply disruptions over the past two months as a result.

This slowdown can be seen in the February economic data. The chart above shows indicators of manufacturing activity in China and the U.S., both of which have decelerated recently. In China, it should not be a surprise that activity contracted last month due to whole cities being quarantined and companies shutting down. What would be surprising is if this continued to be the case once factories are back up and running.

Global GDP forecasts are also beginning to reflect this lost output. The chart above shows consensus GDP forecasts as well as the OECD’s forecast for global growth in 2020. The OECD has recently warned that growth could slow further, possibly to 2.4%.

It’s undeniable that growth has decelerated due to lost economic activity. However, a one-time loss of output is very different from suggesting that there will be a prolonged recession. If coronavirus can be contained, or if recovery rates are high enough for people to return to work, then economic activity can get back on track – although this may take some time. In textbook economic terms, this may be a classic “shock” to the system that causes a short-term decline in growth which is often followed by a rebound.

For long-term investors, the U.S. economy was fundamentally healthy going into this crisis, increasing the likelihood of a recovery.

4. Why did the Fed cut interest rates?

In response to the short-term economic data above, and in an effort to be cautious, the Federal Reserve has cut interest rates to zero and has implemented several other financial-crisis-era emergency responses.

It’s clear that rate cuts cannot solve the underlying problems related to the spread of coronavirus – a fact that the Fed understands – nor can it spur activity in all parts of the economy. The best the Fed can do is to bolster confidence and reduce frictions in financial markets. Like their other recent rate cuts, this amounts to an “insurance cut” in that it may help to prevent other problems down the line. For instance, the Fed may want to prevent financial contagion in the credit markets from spreading if work stoppages last for longer than expected.

5. How might the market respond in the coming months?

The bigger issue around the emergency Fed decision is that rate cuts were already widely anticipated. Since 2008, many investors have come to rely on the Fed to bail out the stock market. This is often referred to as the “Fed put” since it is akin to a put option which protects investors on the downside.

For long-term investors, however, it’s still more important to focus on economic fundamentals, valuations and corporate earnings. Following the recent market pullback, the overall stock market valuation has fallen to its lowest level in years.

While this is, of course, partially driven by a decline in market prices, it’s important to keep in mind that valuations also take into account future earnings expectations. In other words, estimates of the economic impacts discussed previously are included in these numbers. The fact that valuations have fallen – rather than rising or staying the same – suggests that stock prices have declined faster than earnings expectations. Thus, this implies that are still many opportunities for long-term investors.

Additionally, it’s normal and expected for the stock market to swing in either direction on a short-term basis. In fact, several 5-10% moves are quite common each year. The chart above shows that investors have experienced two such moves in recent weeks and that, historically, the average year experiences several of these pullbacks before recovering.

Ultimately, the best way for investors to handle the uncertainty caused by coronavirus is by holding an appropriate portfolio. While many global asset classes are in the red thus far into the year, a balanced portfolio has fallen by far less than the overall market, which is exactly what it is designed to do through all market conditions.

In the end, much of investing is emotional and behavioral. A steadier ride helps investors to stay on track and not overreact to short-term developments.

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