Where are we on vaccines and treatments?
During 2020, the United States government has spent more than $13 billion on Operation Warp Speed (OWS), which is focused on accelerating the development of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, according to The Economist. The United States is not alone. Governments around the world are funding similar research.
The Economist reported, “…with the eagerness of the pharma sector to find treatments, along with the broad range of investments made by OWS (as well as other governments), there has been a lot of progress in the search for tests, drugs, and vaccines…Even the master of caution on vaccines, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, thinks a signal of vaccine efficacy might arrive in September.”
Any progress on treatments and vaccines is welcome news. Last week, there were more than 4 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States, and the number of deaths rose above 1,000 a day, reported Joe Murphy and colleagues at NBC News. Late in the week, the number of new cases in Arizona, Florida, and South Carolina appeared to be trending lower, according to data from the Coronavirus Research Center at Johns Hopkins.
The resurgence of the virus may be one reason for the decline in U.S. stock markets last week. The Nasdaq Composite Index delivered back-to-back losses for the first time in more than a month, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index finished the week slightly lower, reported Ben Levisohn of Barron’s.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the drop because there were many possible drivers. For instance, the Department of Labor reported the number of new unemployment claims increased, after 15 weeks of declines. Markets may have been concerned about increasing unemployment numbers when the extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits expires at the end of this week. Congress has yet to agree on whether or how to extend benefits.
In addition, earnings have been less than stellar – as expected. Last week, 26 percent of companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index had reported second quarter results. The blended earnings, which combine actual results for companies that have reported with the estimated results for companies that have not yet reported, were down 42.4 percent, reported John Butters of FactSet.
There is little doubt the virus has wrought economic havoc. Let’s hope we find a vaccine soon. Future generations may think about COVID-19 the way we now think about polio, measles, and rubella.
Is the United States economy recovering or faltering?
It depends on who you ask and which data you consider. For example, last week, the Department of Labor reported fewer people applied for first-time unemployment benefits during the week of July 11. That could be a tick in the positive data column. Week-to-week the number declined from 1.31 million to 1.30 million. The lackluster decline could be a tick in the negative data column since the long-term weekly average is about 20 percent of that number.
There was positive news about progress on COVID-19 vaccines last week. The hope it inspired was tempered by reports the number of new cases continued to grow in a majority of U.S. states.
Concern about the resurgence of the virus negatively affected consumer sentiment during the first half of July. The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Survey reported, “The promising gain recorded in June was reversed, leaving the Sentiment Index in early July insignificantly above the April low (+1.4 points).”
Uncertainty is reflected in the divergent stories told by stock and bond markets.
The year-to-date return for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index moved briefly into positive territory last week before finishing slightly down, reported Financial Times. That’s an impressive run for a benchmark that was down more than 30 percent in late March. Meanwhile, the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite has been in positive territory for a while.
Last week, Mike Wilson, Chief U.S. Equity Strategist at Morgan Stanley said, “The bottom line, equity markets have been telling us growth is going to surprise on the upside.”
Bond markets have been less optimistic. Yields on U.S. Treasuries remain exceptionally low, suggesting investors continue to seek safe havens amidst uncertainty about the future. On January 2, 2020, 10-year Treasury notes yielded 1.88 percent. Last week, the yield was 0.63 percent.
On a recent earnings call, Jamie Dimon, chairman of JPMorgan Chase, shared his thoughts on the state of the economy. “Can I just amplify it? In a normal recession unemployment goes up, delinquencies go up, charge-offs go up, home prices go down; none of that's true here…Savings are up, incomes are up, home prices are up. So you will see the effect of this recession; you're just not going to see it right away because of all the stimulus…you're going to have a much murkier economic environment going forward than you had in May and June, and you have to be prepared for that…”
Markets may remain volatile until the economic picture gains some clarity.
Please don’t scream inside your heart.
Last week, a reopened Japanese theme park asked patrons to wear masks to help reduce the spread of coronavirus. It also asked them not to scream while riding the rollercoaster. “Please scream inside your heart,” park management urged.
During 2020, stock markets in the United States have taken investors on an emotional rollercoaster ride. By late March, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index had lost more than 30 percent. The Index has since regained most of those losses, although there have been many ups and downs along the way.
The culprits behind market volatility have been fear and uncertainty, often inspired by twists and turns in the coronavirus saga. Last week, as stocks faltered and demand for U.S. government bonds surged, Eric Platt and Colby Smith of Financial Times reported:
“The strong demand for [safe] haven assets emerged after several U.S. states reported further increases in coronavirus cases, after Florida on Thursday recorded its largest death toll since the crisis spread to the United States. Some succor was provided to nervous investors on Friday after [a pharmaceutical company] released data showing its potential coronavirus treatment…had reduced mortality rates in early trials. That provided a bump to stocks and tempered the gains in Treasuries.”
Volatile markets often cause investors to become uneasy. Sometimes, the emotional rollercoaster causes them to focus on short-term performance rather than long-term financial goals. Today, market fluctuations, in tandem with health concerns, work anxiety, and social distancing requirements, may trigger a stronger response than usual, making investors particularly vulnerable to the emotional biases within us.
If short-term market swings are making you restless or uncomfortable, don’t keep it to yourself. This is a good time to re-evaluate your risk tolerance, review your financial goals, and make sure you have enough cash to meet current needs.
What a quarter!
Who could have guessed a global pandemic would produce outsized stock market returns? Near the end of last quarter (March 23), the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index was down 30.75 percent for the year, and it looked like 2020 was going to be a disappointing year for many investors.
Since then, the S&P 500 has gained 39 percent, reported The Economist. It rose 20 percent from March 31 to June 30. The Dow Jones Industrial Average also did well, delivering its second best quarterly showing since 1938. The Nasdaq Composite finished the quarter in positive territory.
A variety of factors contributed to the exceptional performance of U.S. stock markets during the quarter:
Supportive central bank policies helped global economies during the second quarter, too. Stock markets in many regions, including Europe, China, and Japan, finished the second quarter higher. Positive economic data, optimism about coronavirus treatments, and hopes for a vaccine helped push markets higher, reported T. Rowe Price.
Consumer confidence also contributed. Callum Keown, Nicholas Jasinski, and Carleton English of Barron’s reported:
“On Tuesday, the Conference Board reported an 11-point rise in the June consumer confidence index, to 98.1 points. Economists’ consensus estimate had been for a 90.6 reading. American households remain more optimistic about the future than their current circumstances: the present situation index component of the survey rose 15.1 points, to 86.2, while the expectations index rose 9.1 points, to 106.”
It is possible consumer confidence in the United States will be dented by the recent upsurge in coronavirus cases. Last week, the spread of COVID-19 was gaining momentum again. Every day, from Wednesday through Saturday, more than more than 50,000 new cases were confirmed.
Many states and cities implemented new measures to slow the spread. One of the most important may be mask wearing. Researchers at Goldman Sachs reported:
“Thus, the upshot of our analysis is that a national face mask mandate could potentially substitute for renewed lockdowns that would otherwise subtract nearly 5 percent from GDP. It is important to recognize that this estimate is quite uncertain because it is based on a number of statistical relationships that are all measured with error. Despite the numerical uncertainty, however, our analysis suggests that the economic benefit from a face mask mandate and increased face mask usage could be sizable.”