02 March 2020
These are worrying times – first and foremost in human terms, but also in regard to the economic cost. Today, it was announced that coronavirus (COVID-19) is confirmed in all but one country in Western Europe, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a meeting of Cobra to agree a nationwide emergency action plan for preventing and containing the virus. This followed a concerning week, with 11 towns in northern Italy being placed in quarantine: 10 of them in Lombardy, a region that accounts for 22% of Italian GDP. Meanwhile, Switzerland and France banned public gatherings (see ‘The Last Word’), with the latter even closing the Louvre because of infection fears.
Globally, some major gatherings have either been cancelled, like the World Athletics Indoor Championships, or been downscaled, such as Milan Fashion Week. Others, such as the UEFA European Championships this summer (with the final due at Wembley in July), and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, have a question mark over them. The number of confirmed cases – which has reached around 90,000 – may only represent 0.001% of the global population, but the spread of COVID-19 across the globe has already hit both economic forecasts and equity markets.
Coronavirus takes its toll on markets
Alistair Thompson of FSSA, Manager of the St. James’s Place Asia Pacific fund, commented:
“There is an economic impact [in China] but I think more concerning is the global impact. A lot of people are comparing the virus to SARS but, as the numbers have shown, the coronavirus is much more serious than SARS. In 2003, when SARS broke out, China was a quarter of the size in terms of impact on [global] GDP – it now accounts for 16% of GDP.”
Last week was particularly ruthless. The S&P 500, the world’s leading index, fell by more than 11%, as did the FTSE 100. Continental European stocks, oil and even Asian stocks – which had already taken a major hit due to the virus – all suffered a tough few days. It was the worst run on financial markets since the global financial crisis – calling into question how long the current bull run, which has lasted now more than a decade, can endure. For the moment, however, it just about rattles on. Already, global markets are in correction territory, defined as a dip of 10% or more from their last peak, but some analysts fear they may yet fall into a ‘bear market’, defined as 20% below their last peak.
Keeping calm amidst market volatility
Given the relatively long incubation period of the virus, which makes early detection difficult even as carriers are contagious, it would be unwise to entirely discount such forecasts, but the reality is that the likely trajectory, at this point, remains shrouded. Yet that may change in the next few days. Silvio Brusaferro, President of Italy’s National Institute of Health, said on Sunday that the coming week will determine whether measures introduced by the government in Italy, the worst-affected country in Europe, are proving successful in containing the virus’s spread. Whatever the outcome, though, it is clear an economic hit is inevitable.
Johanna Kyrklund, Group Chief Investment Officer and Global Head of Multi-Asset Investments at Schroders, said:
“Until we see a peak in the coronavirus infection rates, efforts to contain the virus will significantly dampen economic activity. Markets also have to digest the likely impact of supply chain disruption on corporate earnings. Investors can expect a rocky ride in coming weeks, but markets are underpinned by the fact there is plenty of money swashing around on the sidelines that could be invested. And, of course, bond yields remain very low, making equity yields more attractive. One area to watch is emerging markets, where value is starting to emerge in some of the equities and currencies.”
It takes a cool head, to quote Rudyard Kipling, to ‘keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…’. Amid all the volatility on markets, plenty of investors will undoubtedly make hasty decisions, selling when the market falls and so crystallising losses. In the short term, of course, the combination of immediate news and human emotion can cause mayhem on markets. Yet it is at moments such as these, that long-term fund managers look for opportunities.
Ken Broekaert of Burgundy, Co-manager of the St. James’s Place Greater European fund, commented:
“At this point, we do not think anyone can accurately predict the development path of COVID-19 in China and elsewhere. Without knowing this, it is also extremely difficult to accurately predict the direct effects on companies, and especially the secondary effects. We have limited exposure to the direct impacts of COVID-19 and to China. We are monitoring the valuations of all portfolio holdings and will buy [through this period of falling markets] if we see attractive opportunities.”
Global supply chains are particularly vulnerable to tighter borders, quarantine controls and protectionism, meaning they are at risk from containment and mitigation actions taken by governments around the world.
Hamish Douglass of Magellan, Manager of the St. James’s Place International Equity and Global Growth funds, said:
“Companies will be asking themselves whether they have made their supply chains too efficient. Many people have moved a lot of their supply chains to China and have very minimal inventory and slack in the system. When part of the system goes down for any period of time you’ve got no latency there. People are going to have to think about how supply chains operate in this world if these outbreaks become more prevalent.”
As it happens, there is a great deal else going on in politics just now, not least in the UK, where negotiations begin today on the UK’s new trade arrangements with the EU and a new trade deal with the US; but also in the US, where Joe Biden has made an unexpected surge in the Democrat primaries. For the moment, however, there looks to be only one story moving markets in a major way.