Friday, February 28, 2020

Coronavirus and the Perils of Pricing Stocks for Perfection

The past week's tailspin of stocks into a correction is a reminder that the law of gravity has not been repealed in the financial world.  Until just recently, the high flying stock market, having steadily risen since 2009, was priced for perfection:  everything had to go well or gravity would assert itself.  In such circumstances, bad news can have an outsized effect.

Not surprisingly, the trigger for the downturn was a black swan--a stock market term for an unexpected event that is very bad for the market.  Typically, black swans are the triggering events for sudden market nosedives.  The 2008 bear market that coincided with the beginning of the Great Recession was triggered by losses hitting a poorly understood cobweb of linkages between and among the real estate, mortgage, bond and derivatives markets that concentrated real estate lending risks into the heart of the financial system.  Large mortgage losses were magnified into a tsunami of financial pain by daisy chains of supposedly offsetting derivatives contracts that wound up consolidating risk instead of dispersing it.

Coronavirus (or COVID-19) is today's black bird.  It calamitously began in the world's factory, China.  This meant that it would spread quickly because so much global commerce--and therefore global travel--would circulate through China.  Its high rate of transmission was not fully appreciated at first, and those giving early warning were treated as Cassandras instead of being taken seriously.  So the disease spread quickly and a massive shutdown of major parts of China was imposed.  Commerce slowed precipitously and corporate losses are piling up fast.  The World Health Organization has warned that the disease has become a very high risk.  In short, coronavirus is on the verge of becoming a pandemic, and the prognosis is guarded.

The stock market finally got the message, and had a hissy fit, dropping into a correction in five trading days.  More losses are likely in the near term future.  Opinion is divided on whether the current market is a buying opportunity or a septic facility to be avoided.  If you're set on putting money into this market, make sure it's money you won't need for at least ten years.  Medical science is getting a better understanding of COVID-19 by the day, and chances seem good that eventually we will learn to cope with the disease and contain its impact.  But when that day will be remains speculative, and you should speculate only with long term money that you can afford to lose.

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