The Economic Costs Versus the Sentiment Costs of the Coronavirus
Interest in – or really, fear of – the spread of the Wuhan China-based coronavirus ballooned this past week. We could take an anecdotal peruse of the headlines, but I prefer something a little more quantitative. The global, financial-related search for ‘virus’ this past week hit its highest level in over 15 years according to Google. Their data only goes back to 2004, but there is a good chance that the SARS epidemic the year before gave it a run for the proverbial money. This level of attention will naturally draw out the speculation. In an environment defined by better balance, the investors could be a little more sanguine about the impact such an event would have on their portfolio as it can indeed be difficult to evaluate the direct economic toll such a situation will exact. Unfortunately, the status of the global financial situation is anything but poised.
Benchmarks for speculative exposure (like US indices) are pushing record highs while traditional measures of growth and return are struggling. As we discussed last week, these more ambiguous risks can extort a heavier tax on a market. The imagination of the masses and the threat of a worst-case-scenario trepidation. Looking back to 2008 and 2000, the systemic risk was not necessarily US low-credit quality housing loans nor the exorbitant highs of tech stock shares – though they were certainly high visibility sparks. Consistency across these periods is the over-reach of enthusiasm, supporting a build up of exposure.
I consider this a thematic extreme in leverage whereby we take on greater and greater exposure while the risks associated with the situation are progressively downplayed. Until, of course, the tipping point is reached. What do we look for from here if we are indeed transitioning? Aside from progressive retreat in capital markets and focus on the coronavirus headlines, look for evidence of liquidation and pressure in financing.
The Implications of a Sentiment Plague on Growth, Trade and Monetary Policy
As we look for the mutation of the global health threat into a full-tilt financial hazard, my focus is back on those principal themes I’ve been tracking for the past few years. Recession fears, trade wars and questions over the effectiveness of monetary policy have popped up with consequences for volatility at various times over the recent past; but they have generally fallen short of truly sending the global capital markets reeling. The decade-long bull trend persists. Yet, as genuine concern starts to take among otherwise optimistic investors, the cracks will become more visible.
My chief apprehension rests with the state of global economic health. If you recall, back in August, there was a swift and sweeping faint in confidence around very public concern over the bearing of the global economy. Headlines and search interest in ‘recession’ spiked to the highest levels since the financial crisis at the time. The situation was such that the 10-year to 3-month Treasury yield curve inversion – an event and measure of wonks – suddenly because a main talking point among the average retail trader. Of course, the situation at the time was prompted by data that showed the now familiar ‘technical recession’ in manufacturing and worsening of the trade wars, but it was the outcome rather than the catalyst that upended the market. It is therefore worth noting that the same yield curve returned to inversion this past week. Growth-linked commodities crude and copper have also tumbled. This will likely intensify the focus in the week ahead on data that will range from Chinese PMIs to Hong Kong GDP to US service sector activity (ISM) to global auto industry activity (also in technical recession).
Basic growth is not the only concern that will be exacerbated by a possible turn in sentiment and the virus that has urged the about face. We have already seen China take drastic actions to spread the spread of the contagion, but it still did not like the call by US authorities from announcing a health emergency and warning that travel between the countries could be more significantly restricted. As China and other countries feel the economic pinch, added pressure from steps like this will raise tensions. And, should a country like the US feel the blowback, its tendency has not been towards opening trade conditions but rather the opposite. Meanwhile, should conditions prove more difficult for investors, the assumptions of outside support to ease the pain will grow. There has been no more relied-upon source of respite for the markets over the past decades than the world’s largest central banks. It would be natural for the cries of help to be redirected towards them. And that would be the risk as these groups are already sporting extremely low – sometimes negative – rates and large stimulus programs. Their capacity to offer more help is severely limited and nothing would highlight that more than a fresh crisis.
Consult the Technicals and Correlations for Sentiment
We once again find ourselves in a situation where the market’s confidence is under significant strain but it is unclear whether this could be the tension that finally ushers in a lasting bear market. There are plenty of fundamental observers and traders that are willing to point to issues underlying economy and financial system to say this is it. However, value is always in the eye of the beholder. Should the historically tepid return still appeal and headline-worthy risks find a crowd willing to downplay, the run can persist. One of the difficulties to the balance in our system is that sentiment is not founded on the belief of a single person or entity but rather the collective view of a broad market of participants with different risks profiles and incentives. We are at the mercy of often-irrational speculative appetite.
How do I deal with this irrationality? I like to incorporate technicals into the mix. Trying to apply tangible milestones of progress to key global market benchmarks can help reduce the discretionary we naturally apply to our probability assessments around a reality where the future cannot be intuited. There is as much flexibility in technicals as fundamentals particularly when we consider risk profiles. For example, if you were more risk tolerant, you may be willing to be more convinced of a sentiment reversal with a more proximate support. I am more conservative in this regard. That said, there are certain elements that I believe can be more generally applied when assessing global sentiment. At the top of my list is the collective performance of ‘risk-leaning’ (higher return via capital gains or yield) assets. The stronger the correlation and the further the progress towards a technical bear markets (20 percent correction from highs), the more stout the signal in my book.