After the incredible story of Donald Trump’s falling ill with COVID to miraculously recover in an instant, the US stock market, alleged to be spellbound by presidential elections, hardly wobbled. Trump, the human guinea pig, was administered an antiviral drug, a powerful antibody cocktail and a hormone treatment all at the same time. A weekend later he gave the thumbs up and saluted from the balcony of the White House, ripping off his face mask, which was meant to protect others, not himself.
We will never find out if it was this a unique treatment, not yet given to anyone else, which helped a seriously-ill president to recover in no time or prevented him from falling seriously ill in the first place, or indeed, whether it was applied at all. Dulled by four years of uninterrupted lies, we do not care. We can only hope that the alleged steroid treatment has not altered Trump’s personality much for the worse.
What we do know is that apart from the pharmaceutical companies involved in the Trump treatment, whose stock visibly rose, nothing much happened. For retail investors, and there are strong indications that it is their thinking which now moves the markets, it does not matter who of the two oldies will limp into the Oval Office. That the novel antiviral medications were at least not deadly for the POTUS gave impetus.
The old stock market obsession with presidential change, a Democrat bad, a Republican good, has lost much of its power when we see people falling sick again and filling hospital beds. Despite the state of the economy, things look good for share-owners. Thanks to unprecedented central bank largess share prices are not affected by bad government. It does not matter who governs and how abysmally. What still matters though is how investors assess the never ending story of COVID.
Our perception of the damage has evolved over stages:
First, we thought the novel virus will end like SARS (2003) and MERS (2012) before, with very few casualties, far away. When we realised that China has a real problem, we feared for our supplies ‒ all the Chinese parts, components and materials we are dependent upon. Then we saw the suffering in Italy, scenes of unmitigated suffering not seen since WWII. Soon afterwards we all went into lockdown, with travel suspended in its entirety. When we realised that the deadly virus had little respect for nationalities and was spreading beyond containment, in mid-March, the stock markets crashed, falling more precipitously and faster than in the 1930s.
The roaring back of shares, in aggregate reaching all-time highs, is distinctively uneven, as we have learned in the meantime
We were hoping that COVID will peter out in spring, like a bad flu. When this did not happen, we built our hopes on a vaccine, not yet developed. It will come in autumn, we were promised against better evidence it will come at the year-end or the beginning of spring 2021.
Even the most boundless optimists now have to admit,that no matter how effective any of the new inoculants will eventually be, we will not get them in a reasonable time frame to pin our hopes on them, when even protective garb, face masks or hand disinfectants were not available when we needed them most.
All these new vaccines have to be produced, distributed and administered ‒ by pharmacists, GPs or hospitals, the same which today struggle to provide adequate testing. Some of the new vaccines have to be transported and stored at temperatures of -70ºC, hampering logistics even more. The idea that we all will be inoculated in no time proved illusory. Access to vaccines will be limited for years, while state-of-the-art medical treatment will be reserved for the wealthy.
Retail investors, as well as big corporations take stock of a situation we apparently have to live with for much longer than we initially anticipated.
Boeing, the world’s leading aircraft manufacturer, is planning for a drop in demand of 11 per cent over the next 10 years. We can expect them to know what they are doing.
The roaring back of shares, in aggregate reaching all-time highs, is distinctively uneven, as we have learned in the meantime. Oil companies, commercial real estate, banks, airlines and the travel, hospitality and leisure sector are probing new lows on a regular basis, while green investment, e-commerce, e-mobility and TMT providers are lifted to exuberant, often impossible valuations. Think of Tesla.
The script market participants are drafting is their appraisal today of our future. We will consume, they seem to say, we will have work, we will manage to coexist with epidemics, sometimes better, sometimes not so well, but some changes will be permanent. And when it comes to the environment, we demand those changes.
The losers in my share portfolio are an eyesore. The crash came so quickly and was so momentous that it became impossible at first to distinguish between winners and losers. When the fog lifted and a clearer picture emerged I had to decide whether to cut painful losses, or to keep looking the other way in ill-founded hope.
In the past, a fall in share prices of over 10 per cent was a clear sell signal. This rule of thumb seems unworkable now, when daily volatility in excess of double digit gains or losses are the new normal. Some industries may recover over the years, a hope that helps me to postpone difficult decisions.
I have kept loser Ericsson for long enough in my portfolio to enjoy a 50 per cent rise today, because Huawei, the world’s leading supplier of communication infrastructure, is excised by the US ‒ luck, not foresight. But some industries, like office property, will have a dim future with quite some certainty. To hold on to them would be unreasonable loss aversion. But then, I wouldn’t say that if I sat on a bunch of worthless REITs now, would I?
Crude oil too is sickly, like coal. It is not a sign of optimism when oil mayors start to increasingly invest in sustainable energy, while they depend for their revenues on drilling. And it is not clear how oil services companies, like Schlumberger, Halliburton or Petrofac will ever thrive again. But then, after having suffered the latter losing more than 90 per cent by now, my clear-sightedness comes late. Keep it is a leveraged bet on the oil price, I tell myself. What a coward I am.
The purpose of this column is to broaden readers’ general financial knowledge and it should not be interpreted as presenting investment advice or advice on the buying and selling of financial products.
Andreas Weitzer, Independent journalist based in Malta
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