March 15, 2020
by Steve Stofka
The response to an event is part of the event. While driving on the highway this week, I listened to an NPR report on the relatively few deaths from the COVID-19 virus. I passed under a sign telling me that almost 600 people died in my state last year in auto accidents. The number of deaths nationally was almost 39,000. In 2019, we had almost 20% fewer fatalities than 2002 even though we drove 20% more miles during the year (CDOT, 2020). Cars are safer now because the government set safety standards for car manufacturers. Our institutions are strong. We tackle thorny problems and fix them. Was the reaction to this virus a bit too strong?
On Friday, the death toll from the virus climbed to 50. During the winter flu season of 2017-18, the CDC estimated 70,000 deaths (CDC,2020). That’s over 1300 per week. 50 didn’t seem so bad. One person on Twitter thought this panic buying of toilet paper was all silly. Then he went into his grocery store and the shelves were empty of Twix, his comfort chocolate. A bit of black humor. We may need more humor in the weeks to come.
Despite the mortality from flu each season, the world community has built a collective herd immunity to the disease over the past two thousand years. What’s herd immunity? If I have antibodies against a virus, I won’t be a carrier of the virus to someone else. This reduces transmission of the disease. COVID-19 is a new type of coronavirus. No one has built an immunity, so it travels fast.
Six months ago a friend asked me what I thought about the stock market. I told him I thought it was overpriced. Should I sell some of the stocks in my 401K, he asked? I shrugged. What if stocks went down 50% like in 2001 and 2008, I asked? Would you panic? He didn’t really need the money for five years, so probably not, he said. I’d be anxious, he said. Would you be anxious if you had no money in the stock market, I asked? Yeah, he said. I hear about the stock market on the radio, get news about it on my phone. I’d worry there was another crisis like the financial crisis coming. Do you think stocks are going to go down 50%, he asked? I said I have no idea. If I knew the future, I would have to hide away in a cave somewhere because people would want to kidnap me and make me tell them what the future was going to be. The past has already happened and very often we don’t understand what happened. Even if we knew what the future was, we would have trouble understanding it.
The long bull market in stocks ended this week and the SP500 index officially entered a bear market 20% below its recent high. The bull market almost ended in 2018 when the index fell 19% from a recent high but that didn’t count. 19% is not 20%. What about 2011 when the 20% decline occurred during a trading day but recovered enough by the end of the day to be a decline of less than 20%? That didn’t count either because the “official” declaration of a bear market is based on the day’s closing price. If the 20% decline benchmark were based on the yearly closing of the SP500, we still are not in a bear market (only 16.1% down) and didn’t come close in 2018 or 2011. But that’s not newsworthy, is it?
The financial crisis came about because of a contagion in our financial markets. That led to a contagion of distrust in our institutions in this country and around the world. The current crisis started with a contagion between people that is spreading to our financial markets. This week the Federal Reserve stepped in to stabilize the bond market (Cox, 2020).
U.S. Treasuries are the benchmark for safety around the world. Companies around the world with long term obligations – banks, insurance companies and pension funds – hold U.S. government debt. The key word in that last sentence is “hold.” As fear gripped the market in Monday’s open this week, long term Treasuries surged 10% in price. A lot of buyers wanted safety. In response, companies that would normally hold their Treasury bonds wanted to take advantage of the price increase, so they put some of their bonds on the market. The bond dealers were not equipped to handle this much previously issued long term debt coming to the market. They are accustomed to trading newly issued Treasury debt. They had trouble matching buyers and sellers. Even as the stock market fell 10% on Thursday, the price of long-term Treasury bonds fell 4% in the last few hours of that afternoon. They are supposed to move in opposite directions. Something was wrong. If there were problems in the U.S. Treasury market, it could spread another kind of contagion throughout the bond market. The stock market is like a toy boat floating on the big pond of the bond market. On Friday morning, the Fed announced that they would start buying Treasuries, starting with long-term bonds.
The financial crisis of a decade ago demonstrated that the response to a crisis becomes part of the crisis – for good or bad. A crisis creates a bottleneck which causes unexpected consequences which may need unexpected policy responses. I tell myself that our institutions are strong, that we fix problems. I’m starting to worry more about the people who stock up on a year’s supply of toilet paper. It will not save them from the zombie apocalypse. The zombies eat people, not toilet paper. I thought everyone knew that by now.
CDC. (2020, January 10). Disease Burden of Influenza. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/index.html
Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). (2020, February 25). Colorado Fatalities since 2002. [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.codot.gov/library/traffic/safety-crash-data/fatal-crash-data-city-county/Colorado_Historical_Fatalities_Graphs.pdf/view
Cox, J. (2020, March 14). The Fed to start buying Treasuries Friday across all durations, starting with 30-year bond. CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/13/the-fed-details-moves-to-buy-treasurys-across-all-durations-starting-with-30-year-bond.html