We live in interesting times.
There is discussion about whether the saying, “May you live in interesting times,” is a blessing or a curse. At this point in 2020, we all understand why.
Last week, the world watched in consternation as the price of oil, specifically West Texas Intermediate crude oil, dropped into negative territory. The price moved below zero because a purchase date coincided with a lack of storage space. As a result, the owners of the oil had to pay to have it taken off their hands, reported Ben Levisohn of Barron’s.
Oil prices recovered on Wednesday. Global oil producers have promised to reduce output, which would realign supply and demand, but it has yet to happen, reported Evie Liu of Barron’s. The delay may reflect a hope that coronavirus restrictions will ease, economies will begin to reopen, and demand for oil will increase.
Investors were understandably unsettled by oil prices, and U.S. stocks lost value early in the week. As oil stabilized, U.S. stocks pushed higher. The rebound in stocks stalled on news that trials for a potential COVID-19 treatment had produced disappointing results.
Thursday’s unemployment data showed 4.4 million people filed for unemployment benefits the previous week. That brought the number of unemployed Americans to more than 26 million, according to Jeffry Bartash of MarketWatch.
Earnings, which reflect companies’ profits, remained less than robust, as expected. “The blended (combines actual results for companies that have reported and estimated results for companies that have yet to report) earnings decline for the first quarter is -15.8 percent...” reported John Butters of FactSet.
The energy sector finished the week in positive territory.
Last week’s economic data was about what you might expect in the midst of a virus crisis that has shut down businesses and forced people to stay home:
There were some bright spots, though, that boosted optimism in financial markets.
New York state, where more than 13,000 residents have died as a result of the coronavirus, may be entering a period of deceleration. The number of hospitalizations and deaths moved lower late last week, reported MarketWatch.
Germany announced it is slowly beginning to reopen shops and schools. Guy Chazan of Financial Times reported, “Germany has managed to contain coronavirus more effectively than other European countries, partly thanks to a comprehensive testing regime that allowed authorities to identify and isolate those infected with the virus at an early stage. It has the capacity to run 650,000 tests a week.”
Major U.S. stock markets moved higher last week and expectations for future volatility moved lower.
Why is the stock market doing so well when the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to peak?
At the end of last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the United States remains in the acceleration phase of the coronavirus pandemic. This phase ends when new cases of COVID-19 level off. The next phase should be a period of deceleration, and the number of cases should decline.
There are several different models estimating when a peak may occur, and estimates vary from state to state, according to Sean McMinn of NPR. For instance, the model cited by the White House is from The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. It assumes social distancing measures will stay in place through the end of May. In this circumstance:
All other states have peaked or are projected to peak on or before May 2, 2020.
Despite estimates suggesting the virus will continue to spread and businesses may not reopen fully until the end of May, U.S. stock markets moved significantly higher last week. Al Root of Barron’s reported:
“The S&P 500 index rose 12 percent…its best week since 1974 – and finished 25 percent off its March low. The corresponding gain for the Dow Jones Industrial Average was 13 percent, up 27.8 percent from its low. The Nasdaq Composite jumped 10.6 percent, raising it 23 percent off its low.”
Many factors affect U.S. stock market performance, including company fundamentals (how companies perform), investor sentiment (what investors think), consumer sentiment (what consumers think), monetary policy (what the Federal Reserve does), and fiscal policy (what the federal government does). The driver supporting stock market performance last week was Federal Reserve monetary policy. Axios explained:
“The Federal Reserve announced Thursday it will support the coronavirus-hit economy with up to $2.3 trillion in loans to businesses, state and city governments…The slew of new Fed programs comes as economic conditions deteriorate at an unprecedented pace…and another 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits this week.”
There continues to be uncertainty about how the U.S. economy will recover. As a result, we are likely to see markets remain volatile.
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As has happened many times with historical events, COVID-19 has changed our world in ways previously unimaginable. In many states, Americans shelter at home, venturing out for groceries, medicine, and other essentials. Parents have become teachers guiding online schoolwork, often while balancing their own work and online meetings. We are learning to manage the loneliness, frustration, and anxiety that accompany quarantine conditions.
We are also learning to cope with rapid and unexpected financial stress, despite just weeks ago enjoying an economy which was thriving and seemingly unstoppable. In less than a month, businesses have adapted to changed circumstances. Some are laying off or furloughing workers. Others have put equipment and technology in place to allow continued or remote operations. There is an impressive group of medical leadership working with the White House who continues to tell us that this virus has a curve associated with it, and that the best-case scenario would be to lower the peak of the curve. Our collective hope is the curve will flatten.
Despite solid performance early on, the first quarter of 2020 was one of the worst ever for U.S. stock markets. However, it is also important to understand that this market performance was largely based on fear; fear of the unknown, fear of not having enough, and fear of losing what had taken so long to build. As it relates to our current situation, the bulk of the recent negative movements in the markets were mostly due to fear and a desire for safety in the face of a potentially real danger. Below is the play by play.
At the start of the quarter (and the year), investors were confident despite concerns about trade. Many asset classes finished 2019 on a positive note. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index and the Dow Jones Global (ex U.S.) Index both finished the year with double-digit increases. Bonds and gold delivered positive returns, too. Markets stuttered in January when conflict arose between the United States and Iran but recovered quickly as tensions eased. Soon thereafter, the United States and China reached a preliminary trade agreement. Investors were thrilled and the Dow Jones Industrial Average surpassed 29,000 for the first time ever.
It wasn’t until late January that news of the coronavirus outbreak in China began to unsettle investors. Many were concerned that precautions designed to slow the spread of the virus could also slow China’s economic growth and, by extension, global economic growth.
Major U.S. stock indices continued to gain value in February. At the time, Ben Levisohn of Barron’s reported, “They say the best defense is a good offense. The U.S. stock market may offer both… loading up on U.S. stocks looks like the right move. That’s because the world’s problems [coronavirus in China and lackluster economic growth in the European Union] might actually make U.S. markets more attractive.”
The early-March decline in U.S. stock markets was triggered by price wars in the oil market. Natasha Turak of CNBC reported that Saudi Arabia and Russia failed to reach agreement about output, which sparked a price war. The subsequent supply and demand imbalance – the market was glutted with oil in a time of falling demand – caused oil prices to drop sharply.
Demand for oil continued to drop as coronavirus spread into more countries. U.S. stocks reflected concerns that COVID-19 could become the catalyst for recession in the United States and elsewhere, reported Heather Long and colleagues at The Washington Post. Uncertainty increased when, during U.S. earnings calls, many companies were unable to quantify the potential impact of coronavirus on their businesses.
As the potential human toll of the virus became better understood, many states closed non-essential businesses and issued shelter-in-place orders. Investors began selling shares to ensure they had cash available. As a result, shares were sometimes sold at low prices with little regard for long-term performance potential.
Nicholas Jasinski of Barron’s reported monetary and fiscal stimulus, including relief for individuals and businesses, has helped restore some optimism to markets. In addition, greater certainty about the potential dimensions of the virus may be restoring confidence. He wrote:
“Now, investors seem to be moving on to the next stage of the coronavirus market: picking winners and losers. The correlation between stocks in the S&P 500 index has retreated from its recent near record-high levels, a sign that investors may be considering them more on their own merits. And day-to-day index volatility has fallen significantly since the Dow’s three-day surge.”
It is possible we have passed peak uncertainty. While the exact dimensions of the coronavirus remain unknown, investors’ fears have begun to recede. Barron’s reported the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), Wall Street’s fear gauge, closed below 50 last week for the first time since early March.
Major U.S. stock indices finished last week lower, capping the worst monthly and quarterly performance in U.S. stocks since the 2008 financial crisis.