An unprecedented market event
The unique characteristic of the current financial market crisis is that it originated as a medical issue that has spilled over to the global economy and subsequently to financial markets. Other significant market events such as the GFC in 2008, the dot com bust in the early 2000’s, and the great market crash in October 1987 were the consequence of financial or economic imbalances that led to severe market corrections.
Given this is at its core is a health crisis, the ultimate resolution will be a medical remedy such as a vaccine or treatment drugs for infected patients. Medical opinion seems to indicate that a clinically tested and approved vaccine in normal circumstances will take up to 18 months. However, given an urgent and coordinated response from the world’s leading experts, it is conceivable this lead time could be cut to 12 months. In addition to this, over time as more people are exposed to and recover from the virus, a natural “herd immunity” is developed which limits the spread of the disease. So essentially, markets are grappling with how to value financial assets in the intervening period, whilst speculating on the eventual state of the global economy.
We are currently witnessing anything but an orderly market, with volatility on a scale that has rarely been seen before – a product of the uncertainly over the depth of the economic decline, the impact on corporate profits together with the shape and duration of the recovery. Equity markets around the world have fallen in the order of 35% from the peak of mid-February, while safe haven assets such as government bonds have been keenly sought, rising in price.
There is no question that the global economy is now in a deep recession, but uniquely, this is a recession that has been deliberately engineered by policy makers in an attempt to slow the pace of infection. In order to limit fatalities by not overburdening critical care facilities in the hospital system, protecting those at greatest risk such as the elderly. “Flatten the curve” has been the popular catch cry to define this policy.
At some point, the economy will be revived by removing the barriers currently restraining demand, the question that markets are grappling with is how quickly things will recover after this point.
Policy makers stuck between a rock and a hard place
The dilemma for policy makers is that they are faced with the unpalatable trade-off between preserving the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable elements of society and protecting the economy. In the short term, the protection of human life is quite rightly the priority which has seen drastic measures undertaken to limit the mobility and aggregation of people, including the most recent stay at home orders for everyone except those in essential services.
In order to backstop the financial strain on individuals and businesses, an elaborate range of financial support measures have been announced. In addition to this, central banks have implemented extensive interest rate cuts and unprecedented quantitative easing measures to maintain the flow of liquidity in the banking system. The US has just announced an “open ended” QE program to inject up to $4 trillion into the financial system which will double the size of its balance sheet and include the purchase of corporate bonds for the first time. In this regard, the learnings from the GFC have been particularly helpful.
While these initiatives are usually targeted at stimulating demand, in this instance they are directed to preserving the solvency of the financial system until such time as the demand restrictions can be lifted. The quandary facing markets is that the longer these restrictions remain in place, the greater will be the damage to the economy and employment in particular. For example, in the US, the Federal Reserve estimates that unemployment may rise from a record low of 3.5% to a staggering 30% in the June quarter. These are levels not seen since the Great Depression in 1929. GDP is expected fall to an annualised minus 20-30% in the same quarter.