Markets hunkered down last week.
News of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China unsettled investors around the world. The respiratory infection is related to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), reported WebMD.
Previous virus outbreaks have affected global economic growth. Research into pandemic preparedness suggests extreme events can reduce global annual income by 0.6 percent per year (including mortality and income loss). Lower income often is equated with slower economic growth.
Viruses can also affect companies and share values. However, not every investment will move in the same direction at the same time, and not every country or industry will be affected in the same way. Barron’s reported:
“SARS infected more than 8,000 people in 2003, killing more than 770. The outbreak occurred between November 2002 and July 2003. Stocks of U.S. airlines – a proxy for travel-related shares – dropped more than 30 percent from pre-SARS highs during that outbreak, about twice the decline of the broader S&P 500 index. All stocks, it appears, were impacted by the outbreak. It took about three months for shares to bottom and another three months to achieve previous highs.”
China responded to the outbreak by imposing a transportation lockdown, and that could affect China’s economic growth. S&P Global explained:
“The coronavirus is hitting China during Lunar New Year, a period when households tend to spend more on travel, entertainment, and gifts. Even if the virus is contained fairly quickly, the initial stages of high uncertainty are likely to affect spending.”
In addition, the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, is a major transportation hub and a center for auto production. It is China’s sixth largest city, home to 11 million people, and responsible for 1.6 percent of the country’s economic growth.
Major stock indices in the United States moved lower last week.
The new trade deals are here!
The United States and China signed a preliminary trade deal last week. The next day, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement was approved by the Senate.
The phase-one deal between the United States and China has been analyzed, applauded, disparaged, and questioned. Here is a sampling of what’s being said:
“The eight-part deal includes protections for trade secrets and intellectual property, mechanisms for enforceability, and commitments by Beijing to increase purchases of U.S. goods and services by $200 billion over the next two years. It also broadens U.S. companies’ access to China’s markets…”
“While the deal isn’t insignificant – China has promised $200 billion in purchases…The sweeping U.S. goals to change the way China’s economy functions, from shrinking state-funded industries to strengthening intellectual property laws, are either absent from the deal or described in vague terms.”
-- Foreign Policy
“A truly grand pact between the two countries is some way off – and indeed, may never arrive. But this modest trade agreement shows how much the status quo has changed. Tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars…of imports into both countries remain in place, with an ever-present threat of more. This is not trade peace, but rather a trade truce – and a tense one at that.”
-- The Economist
“Moreover, some countries are worried that $200bn of Chinese purchases of US goods that are part of the agreement will enshrine ‘managed trade’ between the world’s two largest economies, possibly flouting market forces, discriminating against their companies and violating WTO commitments.”
-- Financial Times
“One aspect that most have not addressed is that this is only a two-year agreement. What happens at the end of the two years is not defined…China has pledged to purchase $36.5 billion in ag products in 2020 and $43.5 billion in 2021. But the issues are no one believes either side will keep up their end of the bargain.”
Despite a diversity of opinion about the deal, investors were happy. The Dow Jones Industrial Average surpassed 29,000 for the first time and was up 2.8 percent for the year through last Friday, reported Barron’s.
The Guidance Wealth office will be closed
Monday, January 20th, in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
It was a nerve-wracking week.
Iran fired 22 ballistic missiles at the Ain Al Asad air base near western Iraq and a second base in northern Iraq following last week’s U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian military commander. Newsweek reported the bases suffered minimal damage and there were no casualties from the attack. However, Iran mistakenly downed a commercial airliner, killing all on board, reported CBS News.
U.S. stock prices faltered after the initial attack, but recovered quickly when both sides, “…step[ped] back from further violent escalation…,” reported Barron’s.
U.S. Treasury bond yields dropped sharply last week before rebounding. Financial Times reported the possibility of war caused global investors to seek out investments perceived to be safe havens. Record amounts of cash moved into bond investments, particularly U.S. Treasuries, during the week ended last Wednesday.
Australia was ravaged by wildfires. Citing the Insurance Council of Australia, NPR reported, “The wildfires have killed more than two dozen people, more than a billion animals. They've destroyed more than 1,800 houses, an untold number of commercial buildings and thousands of acres of prime farmland…” At the end of last week, 130 fires were burning and 50 were uncontained, according to the BBC. The damage could mark the end Australia’s nearly 30-year economic expansion.
Puerto Rico was shaken by a 5.9 magnitude earthquake. The quake followed a magnitude 6.4 quake that hit the same region four days earlier, reported the Associated Press. Since December 28, the region has been hit by, “…more than 1,280 earthquakes, of which more than 100 were felt and more than 70 were of magnitude 3.5 or greater.”
On Friday, a tepid U.S. employment report cooled U.S. stock returns. However, Barron’s reported all three major U.S. indices closed, “within a half-percentage point of their highest-ever closes.”
2019 was a remarkable year for investors with many asset classes delivering positive performance. Both the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, a gauge of U.S. stock market performance, and the Dow Jones Global (ex U.S.) Index delivered double-digit increases (see the below table). Bonds and gold rallied, too, delivering positive returns for the year.
Possibly the most important factor contributing to asset performance in 2019 was an ‘about face’ by the United States Federal Reserve. Axios reported:
“The Fed’s 180-degree turn was the story of 2019, asset managers and market analysts say…Chairman Jerome Powell and the U.S. central bank went from raising interest rates for a fourth time at the close of 2018 and giving market watchers the explicit expectation this would continue in 2019, to doing the opposite. The Fed cut rates thrice and even began re-padding its balance sheet in the last quarter of the year, bringing it back above $4 trillion.”
The Fed’s policy decision gave investment markets a boost, however, it did little to quell investors’ worries about potential recession and the impact of the U.S.-China trade war, reported The Wall Street Journal. As a result, investors moved money from U.S. stock markets into bonds and other investments they perceived to be safer throughout the year.
During the fourth quarter of 2019, U.S. markets delivered positive returns despite uncertainty about the strength of the U.S. economy created by inconsistent economic data. For example, the last jobs report of the year indicated unemployment remained near a 50-year low. Yet, in 2019, workers experienced the highest number of layoffs in a decade.
Many layoffs during the year were the result of corporate bankruptcies, especially in the retail sector. Investors who took time to evaluate the juxtaposition of unemployment levels and layoffs may have recognized disruptions in the retail sector has potential to create opportunities for investors.
A closely watched indicator during 2019 was manufacturing. In December, Fox News reported, “The ISM Manufacturing Index fell for the fifth month in a row to 47.2 in December, down from November's reading of 48.1. That's the weakest reading since June 2009, when it hit 46.3, and well below the 49 reading that economists surveyed by Reuters expected.”
One of the reasons for weakness in manufacturing is the U.S.-China trade war. Late in the fourth quarter, concerns about trade subsided after the announcement of a phase one trade deal. The agreement is scheduled to be signed on January 15, 2020.
Continued progress in resolving the trade war could help boost economic growth in the United States. At the end of 2019, United States gross domestic product, the value of all goods and services produced in the country, was expected to remain slow and steady during 2020. However, forecasters at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia expected the economies of nine states to contract during the first six months of the new year.
From a geopolitical perspective, the 2020s are beginning just like the last decade did, with all eyes on Iran.
In 2009 and 2010, the Iranian Green Revolution captured the world’s attention as social media provided insight to post-election turbulence and unrest in Iran. Last week, the first of the new decade, all eyes were again on the Middle East as tensions between the United States and Iran flared after the death of a top Iranian military leader targeted by the United States.
After rallying on the first day of the new decade, some major U.S. stock markets declined on news of heightened tensions in the Middle East and concerns about the potential consequences, such as the disruption of oil supplies.