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Special Market Note: Update on COVID-19

March 24, 2020 | COVID-19

by Connor Darrell CFA, Assistant Vice President – Head of Investments “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” (Vladimir Lenin)

It may seem counter to open a discussion about financial markets with a quote from a communist leader, but we felt the above was a perfect summary of what market participants have experienced recently (and last week in particular). In this iteration of The Weekly Commentary, we aim to put some of the volatility in context, describe what we view to be a much needed and potentially historic economic policy response, and hopefully address some of the concerns many investors have in this uncertain environment.

Situation Report
In just a few weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has completely transformed the global economy and caused a massive re-pricing of risk across virtually all markets and asset classes. The uncertainty of the situation is in many ways unprecedented. The world has not faced a pandemic of this magnitude in over 100 years, and the economic costs of government attempts to slow the spread of the virus are likely to be immense. As a result, investors are understandably scared, but the types of market movements we have observed in the past few weeks only occur when panic and fear become the primary determinants of price, rather than fundamentals. The problem for markets is that the fundamentals are very uncertain at this point in time, and it is unlikely that this uncertainty will dissipate for the next several weeks.

With that as a backdrop, it is entirely plausible that markets fall further before finding a bottom. Investors should prepare themselves for poor economic data (particularly with respect to the labor market) and the continued increase in the number of cases to spark further volatility in the weeks ahead. Importantly, the slew of bad news we are likely to see in the coming weeks makes it all the more essential for investors to remain grounded to the core principles of investing discipline. These principles include employing a disciplined rebalancing strategy, maintaining a properly diversified portfolio, keeping focused on the long-term, and avoiding making emotional decisions. As much as it can feel otherwise when we are going through them, bear markets are temporary events. Pandemics are temporary events as well, and we expect that the economy will emerge on the other side without having suffered major damage to productive capacity, which is something that cannot be said for all economic shocks throughout history.

The Policy Response
In our view, this challenge will require a coordinated and targeted response using both fiscal and monetary policy tools. We are looking for (and expect) an historic response to this global crisis from policymakers. We have already seen the Federal Reserve step in to address the first key issue, which is a lack of liquidity in the financial system. Through open market operations which involve buying bonds from those looking to sell them (also known as Quantitative Easing), the Federal Reserve has committed an enormous amount of capital to provide and ensure stability in markets. We anticipate that these policies should provide some relief in the weeks ahead and continue to rate the monetary policy environment as “Very Positive” in our economic heat map.

There has also been heavy focus on congress as investors have clamored for a fiscal response to the crisis, and we remain optimistic that differences will be worked out and that a bill (possibly more than one) will be passed. The initial task for policymakers is to provide relief to those who need it while quarantines remain in place and the spread of the virus runs its course. This will likely take several weeks. During this time, fiscal policies should be targeted at expanding the social safety net (through increased unemployment benefits and paid family leave) as well as providing bridge loans for cash-strapped businesses unable to operate with society at a standstill. Once the rate of contagion has begun to turn downward (which is likely several weeks away), we then expect the passage of a more traditional stimulus package aimed at spurring economic demand.

Balancing Near-Term Gratification with Missed Opportunity Over the Long-Term
All of this is rather complex, but the crux of the matter is that while the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are not likely to subside in the near-term, the eventual return to economic activity is likely to be aided by historically powerful fiscal and monetary forces. All of this suggests that it will be exceptionally difficult to time the bottom, and investors who exited risk assets during the worst of the crisis are unlikely to be able to re-enter the market at the right time. If markets continue to slide lower before finding a bottom, those same investors may experience a period of gratification in the near-term as a result of having avoided additional losses, but are just as likely to have made themselves worse off in the long-term as a result of missed opportunities for healthy returns on the back end. In short, maintaining discipline and managing emotions is key. At this point in time, it is safe for investors to approach the current environment as the start of a new economic cycle. This new cycle will bring with it its own set of characteristics and opportunities. Perhaps value stocks will finally regain market leadership? Maybe international equities will once again find their footing relative to domestic stocks? How can I construct my portfolio to maximize my opportunity to achieve my long-term financial goals? The first two questions speak to the concept of diversification. We simply do not know which types of stocks will lead the way in the next cycle (though valuation can provide us with some clues), so a balanced approach is needed. With respect to the third question, bond yields currently stand at historically low levels, making it exceptionally unlikely that goals can be achieved without exposure to equities in a portfolio. All of these questions may seem trifling in the face of a near-term global crisis but are exactly the types of issues that long-term investors should be focused on, because these are the things that ultimately determine investment success over a full-time horizon.