Led by bitcoin, most major cryptocurrencies have spent the past seven days in relative tranquility. Bitcoin and ether have been trading -0.69% and -4.46% on the week respectively, according to crypto data aggregator COIN360. The biggest movers are Binance’s BNB, which has added 6.95% over the same period, and Dogecoin, which is down by 8.28%.
As of 8.06 a.m. ET, bitcoin is still facing resistance at $33,576 though on-chain metrics are becoming more bullish. For instance, “bitcoin exchange balances have started to show signs of sustained outflows,” tweeted blockchain data and intelligence provider Glassnode. Approximately 40,000 BTC, or $1.37 billion, have been withdrawn over the last three weeks, reversing weeks of inflows that coincided with the 50% market crash. The withdrawals suggest that traders are moving their funds to outside wallets and aren’t looking to sell in the near term.
That said, there have been some standouts among altcoins. EOS, the native cryptocurrency of the EOS.IO blockchain platform, rallied nearly 11% in the last few days following the announcement that crypto startup Bullish is preparing for a public listing via a $9 billion SPAC deal. During the past year, Bullish received an initial capital injection of $100 million and digital assets, including 20 million EOS, from Block.one, the company behind EOS. Additionally, Block.one’s CEO Brendan Blumer will become the chairman of Bullish upon the transaction’s close.
Another big altcoin winner of the week is Terra (LUNA), a native token of the namesake protocol for issuing fiat-pegged stablecoins, – up by 30.86%. The token seems to have found its footing after the volatility it saw in May. On July 7, Terraform Labs, the project’s creator, committed approximately $70 million to boost the reserves of its savings protocol Anchor. LUNA’s market capitalization has leaped from $300 million to $3.4 billion since January.
But all eyes will be on one of the largest releases of locked shares (16,240) in the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust (GBTC), bound to take place on July 17. In total, 40,000 shares will become unlocked in the coming weeks.
The trust, set up as a private placement where qualified investors can buy shares directly from Grayscale, requires investors to hold their shares for six months before selling them on the secondary market. GBTC saw massive interest in late 2020 and early 2021 among institutions looking for a simple way to get exposure to bitcoin.
Opinions on the impact of the event on the market differ. JPMorgan strategists think the selling will add pressure on the cryptocurrency. “Selling of GBTC shares exiting the six-month lockup period during June and July has emerged as an additional headwind for bitcoin,” wrote the bank’s analysts in a note issued earlier in June. “Despite some improvement, our signals remain overall bearish.”
Analysts at cryptocurrency exchange Kraken, however, seem to disagree: “market structure suggests that the unlock will not weigh materially on BTC spot markets anytime soon, if at all, like some have claimed.” Whether or not the unlock creates a catalyst for price action, it remains one of the most anticipated events of the week.
I report on cryptocurrencies and emerging use cases of blockchain. Born and raised in Russia, I graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi with a degree in economics and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where I focused on data and business reporting.
Bitcoin was holding steady after surging to $40,000 following another weekend of price swings following tweets from Tesla boss Elon Musk, who fended off criticism over his market influence and said Tesla sold bitcoin but may resume transactions using it.
In other news, some 81% of fund managers believe Bitcoin is in a bubble, even after May’s 35% price crash, according to the latest Bank of America Global Fund Manager survey and reported by Coindesk.
The results for the period June 4-10 are up six percentage points from last month’s data, indicating sentiment on Wall Street has turned more bearish.
The survey showed 72% of the fund managers surveyed think the recent uptick in inflation is transitory. Bitcoin is often seen as a hedge against inflation, and many crypto analysts attribute the cryptocurrency’s gains over the past year to concern about increasing inflation.
Last week, El Salvador became the world’s first country to recognize bitcoin as legal tender.
Once upon a time, in the (somewhat mythical) past of traditional defined benefit pensions, your employer protected you from the risk of outliving your money in retirement, by acting, more or less, as an insurance company providing an annuity. With that benefit receding into the past, many experts have been hoping that Americans with 401(k) plans would avail themselves of annuities on their own, to give themselves the same sort of protection, and, indeed, the SECURE Act of 2019 made it easier for those plans to offer their participants an annuity choice, and, when surveyed, 73% of those participants said they would “consider” an annuity at retirement.
At the same time, though, Americans distrust annuities — in part because traditional deferred annuities had high fees and expenses and only made sense in an era predating IRAs and 401(k)s, when they were attractive solely due to the limited tax-advantaged options for retirement savings. But that’s not the only reason — annuities, quite frankly, aren’t cheap.
How do you quantify the value of an annuity? In one respect, it’s subjective and personal: do you judge yourself to be in good health, or does family history and your list of medications say that you’ll be one of those with the early deaths that longer-lived annuity-purchasers are counting on? Do you want to be sure you can maintain your standard of living throughout your retirement, or do you figure that you won’t really care one way or another if you have to cut down expenses once you’re among the “old-old”?
Here’s some good news: using the costs of actual annuities available for consumers to purchase in June 2020, and comparing them to bond rates which were similar to the investment portfolios those insurance companies hold, the authors calculated “money’s worth ratios” that show that, for annuities purchased immediately at retirement, the value of the annuities was between 92% – 94% (give-or-take, depending on type) of its cost. That means that the value of the insurance protection is a comparatively modest 6 – 8% of the total investment.
But there’s a catch — or, rather, two of them.
In the first place, the authors calculate their ratios based on a standard mortality table for annuity purchasers — which makes sense if the goal is to judge the “fairness” of an annuity for the healthy retirees most likely to purchase one. But this doesn’t tell us whether an annuity is a smart purchase for someone who thinks of themselves as being in comparatively poorer health, or with a spottier family health history, and folks in these categories would benefit considerably from analysis that’s targeted at them, that evaluates, realistically, whether annuities are the right call and whether their prediction of their life expectancy is likely to be right or wrong.
In the second place, the 92% – 94% money’s worth calculation is based on the typical investment portfolio of insurance companies, approximated by the returns of BBB-rated bonds. This measures whether the annuity is “fair” or not, in that “moral” sense of whether the perception that the company is “cheating” is customers is real (it’s not).
But these interest rates are very low. The authors, in addition to their calculations of “money’s worth,” back into the implied discount rate from the annuity costs themselves. For men aged 65, that interest rate is 2.16%; for women aged 65, 2.18%.
Now, imagine that you compare this annuity to an alternative plan of investing your money in the stock market, earning 7% annual returns, and believing you can predict your death date (or not really caring if you fall short or end up with leftover money for heirs).
The cost of the protection offered by the annuity, the guarantee that you will never run out of money, and that you will not suffer from a market crash, is very expensive indeed — when you compare apples to oranges in this manner, the money’s worth ratio is, according to my very rough estimates, more like 60%, meaning that about 40% of your cash is spent to purchase the “insurance protection” of the annuity.
And, again, that’s not because insurance companies are cheating anyone; that’s solely because of the wide gap between corporate bond rates and expected returns when investing in the stock market— a gap which was particularly wide in the summer of 2020 when this study was competed, but remains nearly as wide now.
As it stands, Moody’s Baa rates are in the 3% range; in the 2000s, they were in the 6% range, and in the 1990s, from 7% – 9%. Although this drop in bond rates is good news for American homebuyers because this marches in tandem with mortgage rates, it makes it far harder for retirees to manage their finances in ways that protect them from the risks that they face in their retirement.
Perhaps interest rates in general, and bond rates specifically, will increase as we leave our current economic challenges, but there’s no certainty, and as long as this gap between bond rates and expected stock market returns remains so substantial, retirees will be challenged to find any sort of safe investment that makes sense for them. Which means that what seems like a great benefit for Americans looking to borrow money — for mortgages, car loans, credit cards — can pit the elderly against the young in a generational “us vs. them” contest.
Yes, I’m a nerd, and an actuary to boot. Armed with an M.A. in medieval history and the F.S.A. actuarial credential, with 20 years of experience at a major benefits consulting firm, and having blogged as “Jane the Actuary” since 2013, I enjoy reading and writing about retirement issues, including retirement income adequacy, reform proposals and international comparisons.
An annuity is a series of payments made at equal intervals. Examples of annuities are regular deposits to a savings account, monthly home mortgage payments, monthly insurance payments and pension payments. Annuities can be classified by the frequency of payment dates. The payments (deposits) may be made weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly, or at any other regular interval of time. Annuities may be calculated by mathematical functions known as “annuity functions”.
An annuity which provides for payments for the remainder of a person’s lifetime is a life annuity.
Variability of payments
Fixed annuities – These are annuities with fixed payments. If provided by an insurance company, the company guarantees a fixed return on the initial investment. Fixed annuities are not regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Variable annuities – Registered products that are regulated by the SEC in the United States of America. They allow direct investment into various funds that are specially created for Variable annuities. Typically, the insurance company guarantees a certain death benefit or lifetime withdrawal benefits.
Equity-indexed annuities – Annuities with payments linked to an index. Typically, the minimum payment will be 0% and the maximum will be predetermined. The performance of an index determines whether the minimum, the maximum or something in between is credited to the customer.
You would never know how terrible the past year has been for many Americans by looking at Wall Street, which has been going gangbusters since the early days of the pandemic.
“On the streets, there are chants of ‘Stop killing Black people!’ and ‘No justice, no peace!’ Meanwhile, behind a computer, one of the millions of new day traders buys a stock because the chart is quickly moving higher,” wrote Chris Brown, the founder and managing member of the Ohio-based hedge fund Aristides Capital in a letter to investors in June 2020. “The cognitive dissonance is overwhelming at times.”
The market was temporarily shaken in March 2020, as stocks plunged for about a month at the outset of the Covid-19 outbreak, but then something strange happened. Even as hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, millions of people were laid off and businesses shuttered, protests against police violence erupted across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the outgoing president refused to accept the outcome of the 2020 election — supposedly the market’s nightmare scenario — for weeks, the stock market soared. After the jobs report from April 2021 revealed a much shakier labor recovery might be on the horizon, major indexes hit new highs.
The disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street, between corporate CEOs and the working class, has perhaps never felt so stark. How can it be that food banks are overwhelmed while the Dow Jones Industrial Average hits an all-time high? For a year that’s been so bad, it’s been hard not to wonder how the stock market could be so good.
To the extent that there can ever be an explanation for what’s going on with the stock market, there are some straightforward financial answers here. The Federal Reserve took extraordinary measures to support financial markets and reassure investors it wouldn’t let major corporations fall apart.
Congress did its part as well, pumping trillions of dollars into the economy across multiplereliefbills. Turns out giving people money is good for markets, too. Tech stocks, which make up a significant portion of the S&P 500, soared. And with bond yields so low, investors didn’t really have a more lucrative place to put their money.
To put it plainly, the stock market is not representative of the whole economy, much less American society. And what it is representative of did fine.“No matter how many times we keep on saying the stock market is not the economy, people won’t believe it, but it isn’t,” said Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist. “The stock market is about one piece of the economy — corporate profits — and it’s not even about the current or near-future level of corporate profits, it’s about corporate profits over a somewhat longish horizon.”
Still, those explanations, to many people, don’t feel fair. Investors seem to have remained inconceivably optimistic throughout real turmoil and uncertainty. If the answer to why the stock market was fine is basically that’s how the system works, the follow-up question is: Should it?
“Talking about the prosperous nature of the stock market in the face of people still dying from Covid-19, still trying to get health care, struggling to get food, stay employed, it’s an affront to people’s actual lived experience,” said Solana Rice, the co-founder and co-executive director of Liberation in a Generation, which pushes for economic policies that reduce racial disparities. “The stock market is not representative of the makeup of this country.”
Inequality is not a new theme in the American economy. But the pandemic exposed and reinforced the way the wealthy and powerful experience what’s happening so much differently than those with less power and fewer means — and force the question of how the prosperity of those at the top could be better shared with those at the bottom. There are certainly ideas out there, though Wall Street might not like them.
How the stock market boomed when American life soured
Many on Wall Street, like many people in America, were in denial about the realities of Covid-19 when it first began to take hold internationally in early 2020. In an interview with Vox last April, CNBC host Jim Cramer recalled wondering whether “another shoe will drop on this coronavirus outbreak” in early February, only to see stocks keep rising steadily. “But nothing happened. The market kept quiet,” Cramer told Vox. Indeed, stocks continued to reach record highs.
While stocks often rise slowly, they also fall fast. And once Wall Street caught on to the realities Covid-19 might bring, the market tumbled, wiping off some 30 percent of its value from mid-February to mid-March. “No one had any idea of what the future was going to be, how deep this is, how long it would be, how wide it would be,” said Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices.
The S&P 500 bottomed out on March 23, just a week into New York’s shutdown, and after that, it made a remarkably strong recovery, month after month.
Most analysts and experts point to the Fed as the most important factor in supporting market confidence. The central bank announced a series of big measures to help support the economy and markets in March 2020, including saying that it would buy both investment-grade and high-yield corporate bonds (basically, debt that is risky and debt that is not).
“Not dissimilar to the global financial crisis, the Fed stepped in, and that was really a catalyst for a stock market recovery,” said Kristina Hooper, chief global market strategist at Invesco. “The Fed can be very, very powerful, almost omnipotent, when it comes to the stock market.”
Throughout the crisis, the Fed and Chair Jay Powell have made clear they will support markets and use every tool in their toolkit to do it. Powell has taken an extremely dovish tone and repeatedly said the Fed won’t raise interest rates — which would presumably slow down the economy and markets — preemptively. Basically, the markets let the Fed take the wheel.
Even if it didn’t buy bonds itself, the knowledge that it would if necessary reinforced the markets — private investors swept in to take up corporate bond offerings from companies such as Boeing and Nike. Continued confidence in a dovish Fed has only reinforced market bullishness; while a bad jobs report may be bad for businesses and workers, to investors, it’s also more reassurance that low interest rates aren’t going anywhere.
The issue is, the Fed is a much more powerful force on Wall Street than it is Main Street. Its programs to help small and midsize businesses and states and cities have been far less effective than those set up to help corporations and asset prices.
“It now feels like policy, be it the Fed or something else, that the stock market should really never go down,” said Dan Egan, vice president of behavioral finance and investing at Betterment.
To be sure, the Fed’s role is monetary policy, and it would have been bad if markets were allowed to crash or a litany of major corporations went bankrupt. And luckily for many struggling people and businesses, Congress stepped in with fiscal policy that could be more effective in helping the broader economy — a move that, no doubt, also helped markets. It’s good for corporations that people have money to spend.
Still, some wonder whether the Fed couldn’t have tried to go further to make sure its programs to support corporations flow to people other than shareholders. “Obviously it was good, the Fed needed to do something,” said Alexis Goldstein, senior policy analyst at Americans for Financial Reform. “But the criticism I would weigh was that there were no real conditions that workers were protected or rehired, that all the gains just didn’t go to the top.”
Goldstein pointed to a September report from the House of Representatives’ Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis that found the Fed bought corporate bonds from at least 95 companies that issued dividends to shareholders while also laying off workers. “Surely the Fed is also so powerful that it can say, look, we need you all to prioritize rehiring your workers or we’re not necessarily going to rescue you, we’re going to rescue other companies, and that should be impactful,” Goldstein said.
Companies have been ruled by the mantra of shareholder primacy, where maximizing profits for investors is the end-all, be-all, for decades. Worker pay has severely lagged gains in productivity. Those trends were unlikely to change during a pandemic.
“Shareholder primacy means the job of corporations is to increase their share prices for this very small elite, and that means downward pressure on costs, including workers, where possible,” said Lenore Palladino, an assistant professor of economics and public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “The fact that the stock market is booming is because of the financialization of our goods- and services-producing companies, not because the real economy is doing so well.”
The market felt better about the pandemic than you probably did
Jack Ablin, the founding partner of Cresset Capital, recalls calling clients in the spring of 2020 and telling them they didn’t know how long the lockdowns and virus would last, but they were “confident” that within a year, it would be done. “Of course, it wasn’t,” he told Vox. But the general attitude remains: The markets figured things would get better, sooner or later. “Part of it was saying, look, this is temporary, we will eventually get back to business. So we were trying to look past the valley to the other side of normality.”
Not everything had to break in Wall Street’s favor for the market rally to continue — as mentioned, between the Fed and the future promise of corporate profits, investors had plenty of reasons to be confident — but it doesn’t hurt that it kind of did. The vaccine, which at the outset of the pandemic some experts warned might be years away, appeared by the end of 2020. Donald Trump did not want to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, which some investors feared would spark chaos before voting day, but by and large, the US saw a peaceful transfer of power (with the exception of a riot at the Capitol, that, while disturbing, didn’t have anything to do with the Dow).
Investors also seemed confident that Congress would come through with more fiscal support for the economy. This, too, was not a given. The $900 billion package passed in the lame-duck session in December for months seemed highly unlikely. Had Democrats not taken both US Senate seats in Georgia, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, signed into law in March, would not have happened. While neither provided direct support to the markets, they did support the broader economy that the markets have for months been bullish on. Putting money in people’s pockets means they’ll spend it. It’s good for Wall Street that Main Street America doesn’t fail.
Some people in the industry point to a certain level of faith in America, like the type legendary investor Warren Buffett channeled during the financial crisis and Great Recession when he told people to “buy American.”
“You have to have an existential faith in America in order to be in stocks over the long term,” said Nick Colas, the co-founder of DataTrek Research.
“What has happened in the last 14 months or so is we’re believing in America again, we’re believing in our companies,” said Brian Belski, chief investment strategist at BMO Capital Markets. “From every bear market and every depression, we transition from despair to hope, and the hope was defined by American companies.”
“There are two lessons to be learned over the past year. The first is that economic headlines are lagging and not leading indicators of the market; and second, market timing is a losers’ game,” said Saira Malik, chief investment officer of global equities at Nuveen, an asset manager.
Nuveen is currently interested in emerging markets for potential investment possibilities on the horizon — including countries such as Brazil, which continues to be ravaged by the pandemic. “We do feel like in the near term they are going to struggle. But the vaccines are becoming more and more available, and while they’re lagging a bit behind, we do think they’ll catch up, and they’ve tended to have the cheaper valuations to go with that,” Malik said.
At this point, it’s hard to wonder what, if anything, will truly unnerve investors.
There are still plenty of risks to the market, including that in the US, President Joe Biden and Democrats may take steps to raise taxes that would mean a hit for the bottom lines of corporations and investors. When chatter of the president’s capital gains tax proposal kicked up in late April, the markets took a small dip, but it was hardly catastrophic.
“We have an administration that clearly has ambitions and wants to pay for them by taxing capital, taxing corporate profits, now taxing capital gains. The resilience of the market in the face of all that is kind of interesting,” Krugman said. “There may be a little bit of determined resilience; there may be some element of when people are determined to be optimistic, facts don’t matter.”
Hooper, from Invesco, offered up the explanation of the Fed. “I do think on a short-term basis, we could see a sell-off if there is a risk that appears imminent, but we have to recognize that all current risks are being cushioned by this incredibly accommodative Fed, which does have an impact. It’s a powerful upward force on stocks that can counteract the downward forces.”
What the stock market does and doesn’t represent
How the stock market does matters to a lot of people. A little over half of all Americans report owning stocks, including in their retirement or pension plans. And during the pandemic, plenty of people got into day trading, for better and for worse. But some groups have much higher stakes in the market than others. More than 80 percent of stocks are owned by the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, meaning when markets go up, they’re the ones who reap the most gains. White people are also the overwhelming majority of market beneficiaries — by Palladino’s estimates, 92 percent of corporate equity and mutual fund value is owned by white households, compared to less than 2 percent each by Black and Hispanic households.
“People often forget how concentrated corporate equity holdings are,” Palladino said. “They’re held mainly by wealthy white households.” Those are the people who disproportionately reaped the benefits of the stock market’s pandemic run, while people of color disproportionately suffered the health and economic consequences of the disease.
If the US wants to create a fairer, less extractive economy where corporations and shareholders aren’t living a very different reality than people trying to pay their rent or find a job, there are ways to do it. The federal government could raise corporate taxes and tax income from investments in the same way it does income from labor and seek to rein in CEO pay.
It could also clamp down on shareholder primacy and make sure companies base their decisions not only on making their investors rich but also on the well-being of their workers, customers, communities, and suppliers. In 2019, the Business Roundtable, a major business lobbying group, issued a statement that it would redefine the “purpose of a corporation” as one that fosters “an economy that serves all Americans.” The government and the public could find ways to hold them to it. Palladino, in her work, has outlined a number of proposals that would curb shareholder primacy, including requiring corporate boards to have worker representatives, banning stock buybacks, and boosting unions.
Beyond policy fixes, there’s also just the reality that the market measures very one specific thing — how investors think (rightly or wrongly) corporate profits are going to be in the future. And for many people, that measure is meaningless. “If you can assess that the economy is good when we’re in one of the worst economic moments of American history, then it’s a useless measure,” said Maurice BP-Weeks, co-executive director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy.
The past year has been a truly wild ride in America and for the stock market, though in different directions. Investors are reaching almost exuberant levels, from the GameStop saga to the crypto craze. Stocks are continuing their bull run, with no clear end in sight. There are plenty of warnings that investors are out over their skis, but then again, there always are.
It’s a far cry from a little over a year ago, when billionaire hedge funder Bill Ackman went on TV to warn that “hell is coming” because of Covid-19. Or maybe it did — just not for Wall Street.
As stocks stumble and cryptocurrency markets reel from a steep $400 billion correction, JPMorgan analysts warned in a Monday morning research note that other risky pockets in the broader market, including buzzy special purpose-acquisition companies and clean-energy stocks, are starting to approach bear market territory, unraveling the massive gains priced in under the longest bull market in history as investors worry about problematic inflation ahead.
Though global stocks are only down 2.5% from their peaks in April and May, some stock indexes—including the tech-heavy Nasdaq—are down about twice as much in a telltale sign that “markets are expensive and inflation is running hot” enough to doubt the central bank policy that’s been supporting economic growth, JPMorgan analysts wrote in a Monday note.
Headlining the stark reversal of fortunes, the value of the world’s cryptocurrencies—after roughly tripling this year—has crashed nearly 18% from a Wednesday high due in large part to a slew of negative tweets from billionaire Elon Musk, a vocal cryptosupporter who’s recently soured on the world’s largest cryptocurrency.
Meanwhile, clean energy stocks, which tripled last year in anticipation of sweeping progressive climate legislation, have fallen more than 35% since January as the broader tech sector slips and inflation hikes up the prices of the commodities necessary to manufacture products in the field.
Blockbuster public-market debuts have been a hallmark of the pandemic stock market—with new listings from Airbnb, Coinbase, DoorDash and more—but after soaring more than 100% in a year to a peak in February, newly listed U.S. stocks are down 26%, according to the Renaissance IPO ETF.
It gets even worse for SPACs (themselves a frothy market indicator) and the companies they’ve taken public, which have plummeted an average of nearly 38% from a February high, according to the first-ever SPAC ETF.
That big drop is in line with the 34% plunge the ARK Innovation ETF—a fund invested in “disruptive” tech and whose biggest holding is Tesla—has witnessed since February.
“All of these moves are consistent with a chain reaction that occurs when markets are expensive . . . but the ecosystem connecting the economy, markets and the [Federal Reserve] isn’t a nuclear power plant destined for meltdown,” JPMorgan analysts led by John Normand wrote Monday, pointing out that past market cycles have shown about 80% of “seemingly expensive asset classes” that crash in one business cycle end up returning to previous highs in the next cycle.
Analysts agree that the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented pandemic stimulus efforts have helped lift stocks and other assets to meteoric new price highs. However, concerns that pent-up demand and an economy awash with cash could spark problematic inflation and force the Fed to rethink its policy are now starting to rock the market. Stocks posted their worst week in three months last week, and at the same time, other assets have become increasingly sensitive to unpredictable shocks—most notably in the crypto market’s volatile reactions to Musk’s hot-and-cold tweets.
What To Watch For
“An inflation-induced stock market correction is possible, but an inflation-fueled shift in market leadership is more likely,” analysts at wealth advisory Glenmede wrote in a Monday note to clients, echoing commentary from other experts predicting that value stocks in recently hard-hit sectors like energy and financials will lead the market this year, as opposed to longtime market leaders in technology.
Noteworthy investments to protect against inflation include energy stocks, gold and Treasury bonds indexed to inflation (also known as TIPS).
I’m a reporter at Forbes focusing on markets and finance. I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I double-majored in business journalism and economics while working for UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School as a marketing and communications assistant. Before Forbes, I spent a summer reporting on the L.A. private sector for Los Angeles Business Journal and wrote about publicly traded North Carolina companies for NC Business News Wire. Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
De la Vega, Joseph: Confusión de confusiones (1688): Portions Descriptive of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange. Selected and translated by Hermann Kellenbenz. (Cambridge, MA: Baker Library, Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, 1957)
Stringham, Edward Peter; Curott, Nicholas A. (2015), ‘On the Origins of Stock Markets,’ [Chapter 14, Part IV: Institutions and Organizations]; in The Oxford Handbook of Austrian Economics, edited by Peter J. Boettke and Christopher J. Coyne. (Oxford University Press, 2015, ISBN978-0199811762), pp. 324–344
COVID-19 has forced millions of companies to reassess their business models, but what about the businesses that are still just ideas in the minds of aspiring entrepreneurs? As mass layoffs and desperate bailouts dominate the news, few people are talking about what it’s like to launch a business in the current climate.
But like other crises throughout history, the coming recession will create genuine opportunities for founders. As Michael Loeb, founder and CEO of Loeb.nyc, said, “Moments like these are like forest fires. The blaze will cripple some businesses, but they will also provide the heat to release new seeds into the soil. Many amazing companies have been born from the ashes of economic downturns and market crashes.”
The 2008 housing and financial crash saw people in the U.S. seeking affordable accommodation without long-term commitments. That’s when Airbnb emerged as a cheaper and more flexible alternative to traditional housing. By 2011, Airbnb was valued at more than $1 billion.
If you think your business idea is ready for the next step, position it as a solution to emerging customer needs. Here are four tips that will help.
1. Find your niche.
Industry-defining companies like Airbnb take form during recessions. Are you able to address a unique niche right now — offering a solution to help people get through the current crisis? Alternatively, can you adapt your original idea to address that niche?
Take a moment to step back and assess the world around you. Identify the issues faced by friends, co-workers, people in the news. Envision the potential solutions to problems that aren’t being answered by what’s currently out there.
Many such niches are getting carved out amidst the current turmoil. Both healthcare and education — two of the most vital industries in any society — are seeing significant disruption. These industries need innovative reconstruction initiatives urgently. Education hadn’t been disrupted meaningfully in 100 years. Now parents and students are looking to optimize their time, online resources and teacher interactions to avoid losing months of study.
If your product or service doesn’t yet fit a current need, see if you can adapt it to fit the new normal. Conditions won’t be normalizing anytime soon — adaptability is a strength. Do you have a software product that can, for example, improve users’ videoconferencing experience, even if it wasn’t initially designed to do so? Can your service facilitate businesses’ online experiences or communications?
If you can fill a niche with your product, do your best to seize this chance — such opportunities are scarce. As Jonathan Greechan, co-founder of global pre-seed accelerator Founder Institute told me, “You want to be skating towards where the puck is going, not where the puck is right now.”
2. Give people what they need: connections and connectivity.
During a downturn, people are less inclined to buy things that don’t address real needs. Frivolous products will fail. The ideas that work are focused on solving one problem well.
What do people need right now? What do you need right now?
One thing everyone needs is connection. Become indispensable by creating and strengthening connections between people. You won’t be able to do this without harnessing your online presence — the more interactive, the better. Use digital tools to market yourself and build relationships with your customers. Tiktok is a light-hearted way of reaching younger consumers. Instagram can propel the visual elements of your product and initiate debate. Throw a Houseparty launch event. Intimacy and online connection are the pillars of the new normal — even when large gatherings are again permitted, securing your online presence now will guarantee you greater exposure in the future.
Keep privacy front of mind, or you’ll lose trust fast. South Korea and the U.K. have developed apps to track COVID-19 infection rates, but privacy advocates have raised concerns about how the tech accesses personal data. Stay one step ahead of such pitfalls by looking at what other companies (including your potential competitors) are doing and learn from their mistakes and successes.
3. Ready yourself personally to take the plunge.
Look in your wallet. If getting investors to cough up seed funding was hard before, it’ll be far more challenging now that they’re tightening their belts.
“Investors aren’t looking for ideas right now — they’re looking for businesses with a team and traction,” Greechan says. “You need to have some minimum expendable capital to get your business idea off the ground and raise more funds.”
If your savings are a black hole and you’re currently unemployed, you may have to take a step back. Of course, you could ask friends or family to invest, but this is a trying time for everyone, so tread carefully: You don’t want to alienate those close to you in your time of need. Consider bringing a partner on board, but be aware that they’ll want to see you contribute financially, as well — at least a couple of thousands of dollars.
Also, ask yourself honestly if you’re in the right headspace. To be a business leader in a time such as this, you need to:
Be open and creative, so you can see the world from different angles and identify opportunities where others can’t
Have the fluid intelligence to solve new and unexpected problems as they come
If you’re preoccupied with other parts of your life, your ability to be open and flexible may be compromised.
To capitalize on your strengths, be disciplined. Write a checklist every morning with the things you’ll achieve that day, such as reaching out to industry leaders you want to partner with or designing your minimum viable product. Take things one step at a time, despite the sense of urgency. Get feedback at all stages of your MVP development. Your MVP doesn’t have to be refined or expensive at this stage — it just needs to embody your idea and can test how markets will respond to it. If you
currently have a full-time job, don’t quit until you’ve received strong and positive reactions to your prototype.
4. Reap the benefits of launching during a recession.
With the economic downturn, the majority of companies that support new businesses are offering discounted rates. Shopify, for example, is offering a free 90-day trial, and HubSpot has suspended marketing email limits and dropped the cost of paid ads significantly. For an entrepreneur, the cost of launching is less expensive than usual and will probably stay that way for the next 12 months.
Another perk of the current climate is the broader range of available talent available. Many major companies have been struggling. Airbnb laid off 25 percent of its staff due to the pandemic, for example. Many highly skilled workers are now looking for roles. Previously unattainable recruits are now within reach.
The sweat equity of new employees is as valuable as financial equity. Their professional experience will help you understand when to start pitching and approaching potential clients.
A recession is when category-defining companies take form. Just as cryptocurrency companies boomed when confidence in banks and traditional systems reached an all-time low, businesses that propose alternative solutions to common problems during crises have an advantage over competitors.
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