The coronavirus has finally infected global markets this week. It's taken a while to fester. But the outbreak has now spread from China's CSI 300 to Asian, European and, finally, U.S. stocks.
I've been warning since Jan. 21 that a mystery SARS-like disease was hitting China, and likely to spread globally. The World Health Organization was due to meet the next day to decide if the outbreak is a "public health emergency of international concern." I pre-empted that the answer is "Yes."
The WHO ruled "No." The Wuhan coronavirus is an emergency only for China, the global health body ruled on Jan. 22. How wrong they were.
Investors worldwide have had more than a month to prepare for this week's selloff on global markets. Even while car factories in South Korea, Japan and Serbia were shuttered because they couldn't get parts, U.S. stocks climbed toward all-time highs. Now the reality of worldwide manufacturing pain is sinking in.
Jaguar Land Rover's CEO, Ralph Speth, expects the company to run out of some parts this week. The British carmaker, a Tata Motors (TTM) subsidiary, says it has "flown parts in suitcases from China to the U.K."
Isaac Larien, the CEO of Bratz dollmaker MGA Entertainment, says it has enough Chinese parts for another month. "The timing couldn't be worse," he told The Washington Post. "In 41 years in the toy business, this is the worst disaster I've seen."
So I've been surprised it has taken this long for investors outside greater China to respond. Yes, China's financial markets are ring-fenced, so there's little direct connection from its A shares to other equities. But this infection in the "factory to the world" has had a severe effect in China, and I believe the supply-chain pain has only just begun.
Korean shares have fallen 8.2% in the last week. Japanese stocks turned south earlier, but are now down 7.5% since Feb. 6. Hong Kong stocks saw a short-lived rally end, down 4.5% in the last week, and are off 8.1% since virus concerns first got real in mid-January. So the radius of stock-market pain is expanding.
Nomura estimates today that only 40% of Chinese businesses have resumed work after the Lunar New Year lockdown. They base that off the Baidu Migration Index, which shows 27.7% of China's population has returned to where it was pre-virus. China's Ministry of Transport indicates that Chinese citizens made 1.14 billion trips before Lunar New Year, but have made only 35% of that in return, or 403 million trips. Most migrant workers, in other words, have stayed put.
By mid-March, some 85% of businesses outside Hubei Province should be operating, the Japanese investment bank predicts -- quite optimistically, if you ask me. This crisis has already defied expectations.
Early comparisons looked at the impact of SARS in 2003. It made sense because the diseases are quite similar. SARS was short-lived, a deadlier virus that nevertheless only resulted in 813 fatalities globally. Economists and market watchers globally raced to release reports about a similar "V-shaped recovery" from Wuhan Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
Given enough time, all recoveries are V-shaped. This is a little like warning that markets will be volatile. Yes, the WARS effects will not continue forever, and China's economy is not going to slide into permanent decline. What's yet to be determined is how deep and wide the V is.
It's understandable that economists have been slow. They are better at explaining what's happened than predicting what's to come, particularly with an unpredictable disease. Yet simple math should have suggested a sizable impact from the Covid-19 virus hitting right as much of China was on the move for the most-important holiday of the year.
China has a much greater importance to the global economy now than in 2003. The Middle Kingdom's economy stands at $14.2 trillion for 2019. It was one-quarter the size, $3.6 trillion, when SARS hit. China only began its economic opening up in earnest in 1997. So the country has also become far better-integrated into the global supply chain.
Likewise, common sense should have told the WHO to act earlier. Many people in Hong Kong fault the organization as being beholden to Chinese funding. I'm not sure if that's accurate, but the body has certainly bent over backward to praise China for its response, criticizing the rest of the world for lacking preparedness instead.
Not every nation can respond as China has, by locking down large proportions of its population. Nor should they.
Chinese authorities have carried out a remit to "round up everyone who should be rounded up," a random dictum that's sounds a lot like rounding up the usual suspects. As a result, authorities in the county of Tongbai have been training SWAT teams to noose, then hood uncooperative suspects who refuse to wear a mask. Each Chinese province is unleashing tens, even hundreds of thousands of tin-pot Communist Party local representatives or uniformed volunteers, based on a block-level grid system. Each one has their own crazy way of outcompeting the other to win what President Xi Jinping calls an all-out "people's war" on the virus.
Consider the confusion in Wuhan. On Monday, the city government said non-residents were free to leave the city if they weren't infected or under quarantine. By noon, that advisory was withdrawn. The city's top brass said the announcement was "unauthorized," and there was no change in the lockdown.
As a result, China is as much at war with its own people as the virus. Even after the immediate virus crisis passes, it may take months for those block-level dictators to relinquish their hold on the people and allow life to get back to normal. For now, you have "escapees" shinnying down drainpipes from five floors up just to get out of their apartment blocks if they don't have the right "hall pass."
The way the virus has popped up with pockets of infection in South Korea, Iran and Italy has been strange. But it suggests we may need to get used to the Covid-19 virus being a way of life, worse than the flu, a dangerous pneumonia, but something people learn to coexist with.
The WHO may be right that most nations are not prepared for that eventuality. The H1N1 swine flu, essentially a new and nastier but normal influenza bug, sent 60.8 million Americans to hospital and killed 12,469 of them, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Its worldwide mortality was a whopping 151,700 to 575,400 people, the vast majority young people in Southeast Asia and Africa.
Honestly, I don't remember H1N1 all that well. It certainly doesn't stick in the brain as something that killed half a million people. Here in Hong Kong, SARS and its 298 deaths in this city carries a lot more cultural resonance.
It appears Wuhan pneumonia is going to have far greater impact, both practically and culturally. Just as they should take reasonable precautions over their own health, investors should start assessing public companies for their exposure to the supply-chain effects of Covid-19.