Economic Update – April 2020
by Infocus Author
Within this month’s update, we share with you a snapshot of economic occurrences both nationally and from around the globe.
The new economy
– COVID-19 causes markets to tumble
– Governments act swiftly with relief packages
– Central banks co-ordinate significant monetary policy stimulus
We hope you find this month’s Economic Update as informative as always. If you have any feedback or would like to discuss any aspect of this report, please contact our team.
The Big Picture
The world is very different from when we last filed this monthly update. What was then seemingly largely a Chinese health problem that was largely under control has blown out to a full-scale pandemic.
It is important for all investors to realise the broad manner in which viruses are transmitted if we are to understand how to invest during such a health crisis.
At one extreme, governments could have let the virus run free and contaminate most people with consequent poor health cases – and worse. At the other extreme, all people could have been quarantined – as they did in China – so that the spread would be controlled and slowed down.
South Korea took a different route with lots of success. They had testing ready by early February and monitored the movement of infected people using credit card activity, CCTV cameras, and mobile phone tracking. That really worked but most countries might struggle with such a ‘big brother’ approach.
Without a rigorous approach to quarantining, most people who are not immune might get the virus. But, by taking a partial approach to quarantining, the speed with which the virus spreads can be controlled.
The reason to slow down the spread is to help hospitals cope with the maximum number of cases needing treatment at any one time. All countries will have experienced an increase in the number of cases to be followed by a fall in this rate. The timing of these peaks depends on the health policy among other personal factors.
Slowing down the spread is the so-called ‘flattening the curve’ approach. Britain started off by allowing the virus to take its own course and then very much implemented a ‘flattening’ policy. The US, to some extent, upped its game after a slow start.
The biggest danger in the flattening policy is to lift restrictions too early that then allows a second round of contagion. As long as there are ‘carriers’ in the community, a new pandemic could always start – that is, until there is a vaccine or cure.
It is impossible for any group of people to accurately predict the length of this crisis because different regions are taking different approaches and, importantly, changing those approaches over time.
The health statistics are easily misread. It is a relatively simple task to count the number who pass away from the virus. There would be some misclassification – especially in countries with lesser quality testing facilities. It is also relatively simple to count the number of people who recover as a proportion of the number who were deemed to have been infected.
What is extremely difficult to assess is how many people have been or are infected. Apparently, many younger, very healthy people could be infected and not even realise it – often by thinking they have the regular flu. To date the testing facilities in Australia and the US has been confined to people who have recently travelled or been in contact with someone who tested positive (or possibly the at-risk groups).
Since mortality rates and rates of infection depend very much on this ‘wobbly’ estimate, we may see differences across regions that are more due to the ability to test rather than health characteristics.
A new testing machine – apparently about the size of a toaster – became available from the end of March in the US. It can draw a conclusion about having the virus or not in 5 to 13 minutes – as opposed to the current far more intrusive testing process that takes three days.
If this new machine (or other better procedures) can be rolled out quickly we can have mass testing and work out who has recovered and, therefore, less likely to be re-infected (the US and UK authorities have stated that there is minimal chance of re-infection but some cases of re-infection have been reported in some other countries). Also, knowing who is infected can better alert people to self-isolate.
The Australian health authorities have said that there is an early indication that our new cases may have peaked! Of course, that is only possible if the current policies are maintained or tightened. Australia is slightly better off than our Northern Hemisphere friends. Many flu-type viruses are less rampant in warmer weather.
All life is precious but it is worth noting that the Spanish flu crisis of 1918-20 is reported by Wikipedia to have infected one quarter of the world’s population and killed 17 – 50 million people (with some reports as high as 100 million). That the current numbers are so low by comparison might be attributable to the action taken by governments around the world. It’s not easy to conform to social distancing and self-isolation but the impact of not so doing could be massive!
So, with that layman’s overview of how the health crisis has evolved to this point – and how it might develop going forward – we can now address the economic and investment implications.
Quarantining and related restrictions mean that some industry segments must close down for an indefinite period. Some people can work from home and some might be paid (at least in part) even if they are not actively working. The rest must rely on savings and/or government relief packages.
The current situation is very different from a recession. It is a self-imposed shutdown for health reasons. Recessions happen for a number of reasons but they usually build up in intensity and take ages to get out of. Once the virus is under control, our economies can bounce back to strength.
Of course, some people and businesses might never recover. That is why the government should, and is, preparing for that eventuality.
That brings us to how much relief (it is not really stimulus because it is partial replacement funding) is enough. Our answer is that no one knows, so why pretend we can say the Australian government’s $17.6 bn plus $66 bn plus $130 bn is appropriate? Rather, the question should be, “Is it enough to get the ball rolling and will the governments produce more if and when needed?” We think the answer to both is a resounding yes.
Along the same lines, it is pointless trying to work out whether data such as that on unemployment, retail sales or GDP is good or bad in the coming months. Ignore them. But when the virus is over, we will get some bumper numbers as the economy returns to normal and catch up spending takes place.
The US economy was quite strong going into the crisis and our economy was strong enough. The latest (pre-crisis) Australian data releases were 5.1% for unemployment and 2.2% (annualised) for GDP. What’s more the RBA has also acted swiftly and strongly.
The main thing to us is that we help each other as a community. Let’s not leave anyone behind!
So, what of the markets? Wall Street achieved an all-time record as recently as February 19th and we followed suit the next day. Both markets then sank the quickest into bear-market territory since 1987 and bottomed (for the first time?) on March 23rd. Wall Street made one of its quickest ever recoveries – gaining 17% in three days. Then volatility then kicked in again.
It seems far too late in our opinion to start selling unless forced. It is equally too soon to dive back in. Depending on risk tolerance, it might be the time for the brave to start dipping their toes in the water. Again, the big lesson to be learnt from this crisis is that these things keep happening so it is always important to try and stay on top of keeping our portfolios in shape when times are good! It is always too late when markets have crashed!
We will start to know it’s over and safe to watch markets again when volatility indexes return to normal levels. All of the standard volatility measures were higher in March than they were in the GFC! In 2009, it wasn’t until the beginning of March that the market started to build in a base in stable fashion – and that’s when volatility returned to normal.
We argue this scenario because a volatile market shows heightened uncertainty and so all news – particularly negative news – can cause another run down.
When we think of the fundamental value of companies and market indexes, we usually try to take a long-run view of earnings and dividends. If that is the case, a quarter or two of bad earnings would not typically play a big part in long-run considerations – especially as we expect a big bounce back above normal levels when the virus ends.
We have not yet witnessed any downward adjustment hence our reluctance to increase exposure to equities now on the basis that they are cheaper. It is worth remembering that the price of a security is primarily driven by the expected level and certainty of its future cash flows. While the stimulus measures and containment strategies are clearly positive, we still do not know what the ultimate impact on corporate earnings will be and hence we have sufficient visibility on earnings to determine the value of the securities and therefore the market on which they trade.