more on coronavirus and the stock market

In an earlier post, I outlined what I saw then as differences between SARS in 2002 and the new COVID-19 in 2019.


–it appears China has mishandled COVID-19 in the same way it bungled SARS, surpressing information about the disease, allowing it to become more widespread than I might have hoped.  Not a plus, nor a good look for Xi.

–if press reports are correct, the administration in Washington is ignoring the advice of the Center for Disease Control and approaching COVID-19 in the same (hare-brained) way it is dealing with the economy–potentially making a bad situation worse


I think COVID-19 will be in the rear view mirror by July–as SARS was in 2003–but the road to get there will be bumpier than I would have guessed.


–the way the stock market has reacted to the new coronavirus  gives some insight, I think, into the differences between how AI discounts news vs. when human analysts were in charge.

when humans ruled 

Pre-AI, analysts like me would look to past examples of similar situations–in this case, SARS.

Immediate points of difference:  COVID-19 is not a unique occurrence–it’s the latest coronavirus from China but not the first so the fact of a new coronavirus should not be as shocking as the first was.  COVID-19 carriers are contagious before they exhibit symptoms, so quarantine is more difficult–i.e., transmission is harder to stop.  On the other hand, the death rate appears to be significantly lower than from SARS.

Two other factors:  the first half of 2003 was the time of greatest medical risk; generally speaking, the stock market back then rose during that period (because the world was just entering recovery from the popping of the stock market internet bubble in early 2000;  given that we’re in year 11 of recovery from the financial crisis, gains shouldn’t be anywhere top of the list of possibilities).

Obvious investment areas to avoid would be operations physically located in China or with large sales to/in China; anything travel- or vacation-related, like airlines, hotels, cruise ships, amusement parks, tourist destinations.

It’s harder for me to think of areas that would prosper during a time like this, mostly because I’m not a big fan of healthcare stocks.  Arguably anything operating totally outside China and not dependent on inputs from China; highly-automated capital-intensive operations rather than labor-intensive,   Public utility-like stocks.

Portfolio reorientation–becoming defensive and raising cash–would have started in early February.

the AI world

What I find interesting is that the thought process/behavior I just described only started happening, as far as I can see, about a week ago. That’s when news headlines began to emphasize that COVID-19 was spreading to areas outside China.  Put another way, the selloff came maybe three weeks later than it would were traditional investment professionals running the show.  In the in-between time, speculative tech stocks shot up like rockets.  The ensuing selloff has hit those high-fliers at least as badly as stocks that are directly affected.

In sum:

–late reaction

–violent, December 2018-like selloff

–recent outperformers targeted, whether fundamentals affected or not.

what to do

Better said, what I’m doing.

The two questions about every market selloff are:  how long and how far down.  On the first front, it seems likely that COVID-19 will be a continuing topic of concern through the first half.  The second is harder to gauge.  There was a one-month selloff in December 2018 that came out of nowhere and pushed stocks down by about 10%.  Today’s situation is probably worse, but that’s purely a guess.

I’ve found that even professional investors tend to not want to confront the ugliness of falling markets, and tend to do nothing.  However, in a downdraft stocks that have been clunkers don’t go down as much as former outperformers.  Nothing esoteric here.  It’s simply because they haven’t gone up in the first place.

A market like the one we’re in now almost always gives us the chance to get rid of clunkers and reposition into long-term winners at a more favorable relative price than we could in an up market.  My experience is that this is what we all should be doing now.  As I wrote above, my hunch is that we don’t need to be in a big hurry, but there’s no reason (especially in a zero commission world) not to get started.




more on the new coronavirus


SARS emerged in China in November 2002.  Local authorities, later removed from office in disgrace, initially failed to sound an alarm about the new disease, apparently thinking reporting it would reflect badly on them and hoping it would just go away if ignored.

The world first became aware of SARS as a public health threat in February 2003.  The disease was declared under control in July 2003.  By that time there had been 8000+ reported cases and about 800 deaths.  The overwhelming majority of the fatalities were in China.  The elderly and the very young were the age groups hardest hit.

the new virus

As of yesterday, there had been 2700+ cases of the new coronavirus reported and 80+ deaths.

There are four differences I see between the SARS epidemic and this year’s outbreak:

–faster reporting and more aggressive quarantining today (the disease is passed through contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids.  There’s no medicine that works against it, so isolating victims is the only “cure”)

–symptoms emerge on average about ten days after infection, pretty much the same as with SARS.   But unlike the case with SARS, where carriers only became infectious after they showed symptoms, carriers of the new virus appear to be infectious from day one, long before they become visibly ill

–China is a much larger part of the world economy today than it was back then.  While the US has grown by 80% (using conventional GDP) since 2003, China is 12x the size it was then.  So the slowdown in global economic activity that will result from quarantine measures in China today will be greater than it was for SARS.  If SARS is a good indicator–and it’s the only one we have, so it is in a sense our best guide–the current outbreak will be well past the worst by mid-year

–SARS happened just as the world was beginning to recover from the recession caused by the internet bubble collapse of early 2000.  The new virus comes during year 11 of recovery from the downturn caused by the near-collapse of the US banking system from losses that piled up during years of wildly speculative lending and securities trading.  In other words, SARS happened when profits were beginning to boom and stocks really wanted to go up; in contrast, this virus is happening when profits are plateauing and stocks want to go sideways mostly because interest rates are crazy low.

investment thoughts

During the SARS outbreak business travel came to a screeching halt because people feared becoming sick/being quarantined in a foreign country. If it’s correct that the new virus can be passed on even before the carrier shows symptoms, the risk in using public transport is substantially greater.  So too the possibility that one’s home country will temporarily bar returnees from virus-infected areas.

Securities markets in China are currently closed for the New Year holiday.  It isn’t clear that they will reopen on schedule.  In the meantime, China-related selling pressure will likely be redirected to markets like New York.  Alibaba (BABA) shares (which I hold), for example, are down about 6% in pre-market trading.  At some point, assuming as I do that the SARS analogy will be a good indicator, there’ll be a buying opportunity.  For me, it’s not today, although if I weren’t a BABA holder I’d probably buy a little.

It will be interesting to see how AI handles trading today.



WeWork (WE) and Wall Street: my take

I’ll start out by underlining that I don’t know enough about WE to have a usable investment opinion about the offering’s merits.  I do have opinions, though.  It’s just that they’re more like my thoughts about the Mets than a way to make money.  Anyway, here goes:

in general

–the WE structure isn’t new.  Think: a savings and loan, or a hotel chain, or an airline or an offshore drilling company, or a container ship firm–or, for that matter, a cement plant or a coal mine.  All these involve owning expensive long-lived assets which are typically debt financed and whose use is sold bit by bit.   Although there may be attempts at branding, with varying degrees of success, in the final analysis these are commodity businesses.

–in good times, this is a favorable structure for a company to have.  Costs remain relatively constant as selling prices rise, so most of the increase drops down to the pre-tax line.  Rental/purchase contracts may limit annual price increases, but investors typically factor in anticipated rises relatively quickly

–in bad times, it’s not great.  Customers may stop purchasing with little notice, sometimes walking away from contracts or renegotiating them sharply downward (using the threat of termination as leverage).  Offshore drilling rigs are an extreme example of feast/famine cyclicality

–because of cyclicality, PE multiples for mature firms with this structure tend to be low.  When such companies come to market, they tend to try to ride a wave of energy generated by previously successful IPOs–meaning that simply the appearance of their offering documents is a sign of potential overheating


–in the case of WE, investor perception appears to be frosty.  This is partly because of what I’ve just written.  Also, from what I’ve heard and read, the 350+-page prospectus is not particularly illuminating (I’ve flicked through it but haven’t analyzed it myself)


investment implications

The arrival of the WE prospectus coincides with a sharp selloff in the shares of recent tech-related IPOs.

Two possible reasons:

Wall Street thinks that the marketing campaign for WE heralds the end of the line for the current IPO frenzy, on the argument that the underwriters would be presenting a higher quality offering if they had one.  This is what I think is going on.

The other possibility I see is the week-long, humorous but kind of scary Alabama weather discussion, an episode I think makes anyone question the mental stability of Mssrs. Trump and Ross.

In any event, given that some newly-listed tech names have fallen by a quarter or more over the past week or so, I think it’s time to sift through the ashes.


Having said that, I do suspect that a significant rotation away from these former market darlings, triggered by WE but based on valuation, is now underway. This will only mark a fundamentally new direction for the stock market if the tariff wars go away completely.  I don’t think this will happen.  So I’d buy a partial position now and hope to pick up more on further weakness.  Remember, too, that this is a highly speculative corner of the market, so it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.



shrinking bond yields ii

why look at bonds? 

If we’re stock market investors, why are we interested in bonds anyway?  It’s because at bottom we’re not really interested in stocks per se.  We’re interested in liquid publicly-traded securities–i.e., stocks, bonds and cash.  We’re interested in publicly-traded securities because we can almost always sell them in an instant, and because there’s usually enough information available about them that we can make an educated decision.


comparing bonds with stocks

bond yields, at yesterday’s close

One-month Treasury bills = 2.18%

Ten-year Treasury notes = 2.07%

30-year Treasury bonds = 2.57%.

S&P 500

Current dividend yield on the index = 1.7%.


According to Yardeni Research (a reputable firm, but one I chose because it was the first name up in my Google search), index earnings for calendar year 2019 are estimated to be about $166, earning for the coming 12 months, about $176.

Based on this, the S&P at 3000 means a PE ratio of 18.0 for calendar year 2019, and 17.0 for the 12 months ending June 2020.

Inverting those figures, we obtain an “earnings yield,” a number we can use to compare with bond yields–the main difference being that we get bond interest payments in our pockets while our notional share of company managers remains with them.

The 2019 figure earnings yield for the S&P is 5.6%; for the forward 12 months, it’s 5.8%.

the result

During my time in the stock market, there has typically been a relatively stable relationship between the earnings yield and 10-/30-year Treasury yields.  (The notable exception was the period just before the 2008-09 recession, when, as I see it, reported financials massively misstated the profitability of banks around the world.  So although there was a big mismatch between bond and stock yields, faulty SEC filings made this invisible.)

At present, the earnings yield is more than double the government bond yield.  This is very unusual.  Perhaps more significant, the yield on the 10-year Treasury is barely above the dividend yield on stocks, a level that, in my experience, is breached only at market bottoms.

Despite the apparently large overvaluation of bonds vs. stocks, there continues to be a steady outflow from US stock mutual funds and into bond funds.

the valuation gap

Using earnings yield vs coupon rationale outlined above, stocks are way cheaper than bonds.  How can this be?

–for years, part of world central banks’ efforts to repair the damage done by the financial crisis has been to inject money into circulation by buying government bonds.  This has pushed up bond prices/pushed down yields.  Private investors have also been acting as arbitrageurs, selling the lowest-yielding bonds and buying the highest (in this case meaning Treasuries).  This process compresses yields and lowers them overall.

–large numbers of retiring Baby Boomers are reallocating portfolios away from           stocks

–I presume, but don’t know enough about the inner workings of the bond market to be sure, that a significant number of bond professionals are shorting Treasuries and buying riskier, less liquid corporate bonds with the proceeds.  This will one day end in tears (think:  Long Term Capital), but likely not in the near future.


To the extent that 1 and 3 involve foreigners, who have to buy dollars to get into the game, their activity puts at least some upward pressure on the US currency.  The dollar has risen by about 2.4% over the past year on a trade-weighted basis, and by about 3% against the yen and the euro.  That’s not much.  In fact, I was surprised when calculating these figures how little the dollar has appreciated, given the outcry from the administration and its pressure on the Fed to weaken the dollar by lowering the overnight money rate. (My guess is that our withdrawing from the TPP, tariff wars, and the tarnishing of our image as a democracy have, especially in the Pacific, done much more to damage demand for US goods than the currency.)

high-yielding stocks as a substitute for bonds?

I haven’t done any work, so I really don’t know.  I do know a number of fellow investors who have been following this idea for more than five years.  So my guess is that there aren’t many undiscovered bargains in this area.


my bottom line

I’m less concerned now about the message low bond yields are sending than I was before I started to write these posts.  I still think the valuation mismatch between stocks and bonds will eventually be a problem for both markets.  But my guess is that normalization, if that’s the right word, won’t start until the EU begins to repair the serious fissures in its structure.  Maybe this is a worry for 2020, maybe not even then.

It seems to me that the US stock market’s main economic concern remains the damage from Mr. Trump’s misguided effort to resuscitate WWII-era industries in the US.  The best defense will likely be cloud-oriented cash-generating software-based US multinationals.  (see the comments by a former colleague attached to yesterday’s post).






Trump, tariffs, trading

There’s no solid connection among the three topics above, but the title gives me the chance to write about three only-sort-of connected ideas in one post.

The crazy up-and-down pattern of recent stock market trading in the US is being triggered, I think, by Mr. Trump’s tweets about trade–and about tariffs in particular.  I think a lot of the action is being caused by computers trading on the President’s tweets themselves, or some derivative of them–likes, media mentions, reflexive response to stock movements (or a proxy like trading volume).

my thoughts

–it’s hard to know whether the misinformation Mr. Trump is spewing about tariffs is art or he simply doesn’t know/care.

Tariffs are paid to US Customs by the importer.   In some small number of instances, a Chinese exporter may have a US-based, US-incorporated subsidiary that imports items from the parent for distribution here.  In this case, a Chinese entity is paying tariffs on imported Chinese-made goods.  To that degree. Mr. Trump is correct.  Mostly, however, the entity that pays a tariff on Chinese goods is not itself Chinese.

This is not the end of the story, however.  The importer will attempt to recover the cost of the tariff through a higher price charged to the US consumer and/or through a discount received from the Chinese manufacturer.  In the case of washing machines, which I wrote about recently, for example, all US consumers ended up paying enough extra to cover the entire tariff  …and some paid more than 2x the levy.  The prime beneficiaries of this largesse were Korean companies Samsung and LG.

–one of the oddest parts of the current tariff saga is that Mr. Trump has decided not to work in concert with other consuming nations.  In fact, one of his first actions as president was to withdraw from the international coalition attempting to curb China’s theft of intellectual property worldwide.  The Trump tariffs are only bilateral, so there’s nothing to stop a Chinese company from shipping a partially assembled product to, say, Canada, do some modification there and reexport the now-Canadian item to the US.

The administration has been artful in selecting intermediates rather than consumer end products for its tariffs so far.  This makes it harder to trace price increases back to their source in Trump tariffs.  However, the fact that the administration has taken pains to cover its trail, so to speak, implies it understands that tariff costs will be disproportionately borne by Americans.


–in trading controlled by humans, a lot of tariff developments should have been baked in the cake a long time ago.  Continuing volatility implies to me that much of the reacting is being done by AI, which are learning as they go–and which, by the way, may never adopt the discounting conventions humans have employed for decades.


–I think it’s important to examine the trading of the past five days (including today as one of them) for clues to the direction in which the market will evolve.  Basically, I think the selling has been relatively indiscriminate.  The rebound, in contrast, has not been.  The S&P and NASDAQ, for example, are back at the highs of last Friday as I’m writing this in the early afternoon.  The Russell 2000, however, is not.  FB is (slightly) below its Friday high; Netflix is about even; Micron is down by 4%.  On the other hand, Microsoft and Disney are 1% higher than their Friday tops, Paycom is 2.5% up, Okta is 5% higher.

No one knows how long the pattern will last, and I’m not so sure about DIS, but I think there’s information about what the market wants to buy in these differences.   And periods of volatility are usually good times for tweaks–large and small–to portfolio strategy.  This is especially so in cases like this, where the movements seem to be excessive.

One thing to do is to confirm one’s conviction level in laggards.  Another is to check position size in winners.  In my case, my largest position at the moment is MSFT, which I’ve held since shortly after Steve Ballmer left (sorry, Clippers).   I’m not sure whether to reduce now.  I’d already trimmed PAYC and OKTA but if I hadn’t before I’d certainly be doing it today.  I’d be happiest finding areas away from tech, because I have a lot already.  On the other hand, I think Mr. Trump is doing considerable economic damage to American families of average or modest means, with no reward visible to me except for his wealthy backers.  Retail would otherwise be my preferred landing spot.

–Even if you do nothing with your holdings now, make some notes about what you might do to rearrange things and see how that would have worked out.  That will likely help you to decide whether to act the next time an AI-driven market decline occurs.