On Wednesday night, Trump finally took the coronavirus COVID-19 seriously. He banned all travel to EU countries for 30 days.
The disease may seem benign to some. Around 95% or more of the people who get it will survive and symptoms are generally mild and far from scary. But what is scary is how fast it spreads. And there are too many unknowns about the disease to find comfort in the fact that less than 1,000 people have it.
China went from 1,000 patients to 80,000 in a matter of roughly six weeks, mostly all of it in a self contained, quarantined state called Hubei.
Italy went from around 20 cases two and half weeks ago to over 12,000. It is now the Hubei of the Western world.
Travel bans on China helped mitigate spread from travelers coming to the U.S. from there. All early cases last month were from China travelers. They have since healed.
The U.S. was caught flat footed by Europe, cruises, and European business travelers at major conferences. The U.S. is now playing catch-up in the mitigation phase.
Trump reiterated what the World Health Organization said this week, calling the coronavirus a global pandemic.
We are probably one sick politician, or one more circuit-breaker on the Dow away from declaring a national emergency, forcing the NYSE to close.
“When people don’t want to go out to crowded events you start to wonder if fear begets more fear. We are seeing a lot of that now,” says Patrick Healey, founder and president of Caliber Financial Partners in Jersey City, N.J. “Until you see fewer cases in Europe, I’d be worried. The threat of spread is greater there than it was in China,” he says, citing France, Spain, Germany and the U.K.’s slow response to the crisis.
Cutting The Tail
Italy was about two weeks too late, but at least they are doing something to save Europe. They shut themselves off. This is literally a “stop the world I want to get off” moment. Italy took the China approach. They put themselves on lockdown.
The U.S. has two fairly solid case studies with how to respond to COVID-19. One is the China path of lockdowns and forced quarantining, coupled with massive stimulus.
The other model is South Korea’s massive free testing and treatment, which also corralled the disease and kept infection rates low. Mortality rates are even lower at just under 1%.
A hybrid model of both seems to be best: lockdown clusters of the virus. Test like crazy.
China is healing. It’s already got its stimulus plan lined up.
“The China approach has worked. It’s been a draconian clampdown and takes away quarterly growth,” says Philipp Carlsson-Szlezak, chief economist for Boston Consulting Group in New York. “The high frequency data in China, the proxies for movement for goods and people, all of those see a nice pick up. And the infection rate curve of new cases in South Korea has bent downward. Just hope we don’t see any worsening outbreaks.”
By slowing the spread of the virus, which includes potential spreaders who came from high risk countries like Italy, China, South Korea and Iran, buys healthcare officials time. It keeps hospitals from being overwhelmed, which is what is happening now in Italy as cases rise, Italy still seems to be fine with ICU bed capacity at hospitals.
A nearly three month lockdown of Hubei, the epicenter province, means Hubei now officially has fewer infections than Italy. The number of new patients in China’s “ground zero” has slowed to double digits, instead of thousands three to four weeks ago.
Eventually, South Korea may also be forced to implement a version of the lockdown model to stop the spread of infection after someone working in a call center tested positive for the disease.
Without any firm facts on transmission, the risk of spreading the disease without showing signs of it are high.
As a result, China has maintained strict control of peoples movements in major cities. The South Korea testing model is harder for China due to its massive, urban population, which is why it is so important to keep those cities fairly inoculated.
From on the ground accounts in Beijing, that inoculation requires school closures, no movies, no malls, no non-essential businesses open and most bank branches closed.
Businesses close at 6pm to get sprayed with disinfectant. Street fumigation takes place regularly. Building sterilization takes place several times a day.
Italy is doing exactly this now. Spraying public spaces, primarily.
In China, face masks must always be worn or else you can’t ride in taxis, take public transportation, or enter any business. Temperature readings are mandatory upon entering an office building. People with slight temps get sent straight to quarantine, according to sources there.
Entire neighborhoods are blocked off to non-residents, with security personnel patrolling to check for proof of residence.
Apartments housing someone with the coronavirus are forced into quarantine. No one can leave.
Beijing has under 200 cases today. Shanghai has under 30, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
“We just can’t impose a China style quarantine, but corporations can impose a work from home policy. You can cut off work travel and that is already happening,” says Brendan Ahern, CIO of KraneShares, who is working from home on Thursday. “Corporations here are acting pretty quickly.”
NBA has canceled its entire season. The NHL put the rest of its season on hold. Major League Baseball is thinking of postponing opening day. The BNP Paribas Tennis Open was canceled, scheduled for this week in Indian Wells. Coachella, the outdoor indie rock event, was postponed. Broadway has postponed shows for a month. Private colleges are sending kids home for the semester. Princess Cruises isn’t setting a course for adventure for the next 60 days.
If the U.S. is dragged reluctantly into a South Korea/China lockdown model, it would usher in a further drop in economic activity. Mega stimulus will be only thing keeping it alive.
It is unclear if Republicans and Democrats can work together on this, as some may see a destroyed economy as a way to finally get rid of Trump in 2021.
“You’ll have the market constantly repricing and mispring,” says Nancy Perez, a portfolio manager at wealth management firm Boston Private in Miami. “Both political parties will have to take this on. No party wants to be blamed for not doing something.”
Disaster relief legislation from Congress can draw on the unlimited checkbook of the Fed to help keep individual, corporate, and even municipal bankruptcies from soaring.
“I’m looking at dozens of companies in the S&P 500 right now that can literally go bankrupt if the government doesn’t act together on this,” CNBC star Jim Cramer said on Squawk Box this morning. “The government should not be collecting any cash right now.”
Quarantining a city like New York would represent a significant tax on all business activity. Administration talk of a payroll tax cut is not enough. Bold tax cuts and deferments would be best. For Cramer, a tax holiday for six months or longer is even better.
In the first 8 days of the month, China has:
- Required banks to provide a grace period for the virus-hit small and medium sized enterprises (SME) immediately upon application in repaying the principal and interest of their outstanding loans until June 30.
- Waived penalty interest
- Banks are providing special loan quotas for firms in Hubei, and lowering the financing costs for SMEs.
- The Politburo called for accelerating the investment on “new infrastructure”, including 5G networks and data centers
- Beijing waived social security taxes for SMEs for five months retroactive to February 1.
Phases Of A Pandemic
According to the Center for Disease Control’s “Pandemic Influenza Plan,” updated in 2017, there are four distinct pandemic stages in terms of caseloads — initiation, acceleration, deceleration and preparation for the next wave.
Europe and the U.S. are now in the acceleration stage.
Hubei is in the deceleration phase, but this comes following two months of lockdown.
Self-protective quarantine, lockdowns of outbreak clusters and testing are the best precautionary approach to pandemic outbreaks, writes Nassim Nicholas Taleb, famous “black swan” forecaster and author of the book Skin in the Game.
Taleb and colleagues from New York University and the New England Complex Systems Institute wrote in a note published recently that cutting mobility in the early stages of an outbreak, especially when little is known about the pathogen, are essential.
“It will cost something to reduce mobility in the short term, but to fail do so will eventually cost everything,” they wrote.
Earlier this week, a shutdown announcement posted outside a hospital in Hubei province’s capital city of Wuhan, touted the treatment of more than 1,700 patients since February 2 without a single fatality.
“If a general return to work occurs this week and new infections do not spike, Chinese markets could quickly be on the mend,” thinks Vladimir Signorelli, head of Bretton Woods Research in Long Valley, New Jersey.
Indeed, they are doing better than the U.S. The S&P 500 is down 23.2%. The CSI-300 Index in Shanghai is down 8.3%.
Should new cases balloon out in Shanghai and Beijing, it would be a huge blow to containment efforts and worsen the global economic outlook. Investors would then calculate similar re-occurring outbreaks in Europe and then in the U.S. once they get cleared of the one they are dealing with now, possibly taking them well into the summer.
“We may have a couple quarters of negative growth and a technical recession because of demand destruction,” says Perez. “Prepare for the volatility.”
Says BCG’s Carlsson-Szlezak, “If we are still dealing with this until the summer, with China-style quarantine measures in effect in places like New York, it will have a massive impact on the economy,” he says. “How massive? We don’t know.”
I’ve spent 20 years as a reporter for the best in the business, including as a Brazil-based staffer for WSJ. Since 2011, I focus on business and investing in the big emerging markets exclusively for Forbes. My work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Nation, Salon and USA Today. Occasional BBC guest. Former holder of the FINRA Series 7 and 66. Doesn’t follow the herd.
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