Monday, March 9, 2020

The Coronavirus Crisis: How the Trump Administration is Pushing Stock Prices Down

The financial markets hate uncertainty.  When the picture isn't clear, stock prices get wobbly.  Before today, the coronavirus epidemic had already pushed stocks into a correction (i.e., a drop of 10% or more).  To make things worse, the Trump Administration has been trying to downplay the scope, risks and impact of the epidemic while federal health officials have endeavored to be realistic.  (See  This informational squabble cast doubt where doubt could do the most harm.

The coronavirus epidemic is the largest driving force in the stock market today.  The disease has slowed the world economy and sharply reduced demand for petroleum, which has hit oil prices hard.  Major oil producing nations, including the members of OPEC and Russia, tried to work out a way to prop up oil prices this past weekend but failed.  This morning, oil prices plummeted into the $30 to $35 range for West Texas Intermediate.  That implies gas prices around $1.50 to $1.60 per gallon, compared to current retail prices around $2.20 to $2.50 in many parts of the country. 

The cratering oil prices exerted fresh downward pressure on stock prices today, so much so that a stock market circuit breaker was triggered for the first time after the S&P 500 fell 7%.  Trading was halted for 15 minutes and then resumed, with stock prices remaining moribund. 

When the markets don't have adequate information, investors are cautious about the prices they'll pay.  When a flood of selling takes place because of inadequate information, buyers will be reluctant to step forward and invest, even when prices drop significantly.  Holders of stocks, faced with uncertainty over the future, will be inclined to sell even more rather than run the risk of additional losses.  Fear spreads and selling increases.  Had the Trump Administration been forthright about the coronavirus epidemic, stock prices would have been impacted, but investors would have been more confident about stepping in and buying.  By creating an informational fog, the Trump Administration exacerbated selling pressure and dampened buying interest.  This is no way to restore confidence in the market.

The Trump Administration is certainly not the only government that has been economical with candor concerning the coronavirus epidemic.  The combined governmental obfuscation has been precisely what stock prices don't need.  But there are few signs of unvarnished governmental veracity on the horizon.  Expect more nausea in the markets.

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