Although I have been writing about various factors that could derail the rally in equity markets and improvement in risk appetite over recent weeks I did not envisage that a virus such as Swine flu would be one of the factors to consider. However, it is and the stress and anxiety about its effects on the economy and of course health are rising rapidly.
In Hong Kong where I have been based for the last 8 months the concerns are particularly acute. Exposed from a high proportion of tourism as a percent of GDP, high population density and its importance as an air travel hub, Hong Kong is somewhat more sensitive than many other countries. Moreover, the memories of SARS and its devastating impact on the economy still linger for many people. A local paper revealed such tensions in its headline, “its creeping closer”
Nonetheless, there is little in terms of concrete evidence to go on and outside of Mexico the health impact of the virus has not been as severe. Even in Mexico there have been conflicting reports about the actual amount of deaths, with some putting it at a much smaller number. Until there is some clarity markets will continue to react to the uncertainty. The rapid spread of the flu has sparked fears of a global pandemic but it has yet to be categorized as such.
Risk indicators have not yet reacted sharply even if equity markets have been hit over recent days, suggesting that at the least there is not a panic in markets. Even the usual FX beneficiaries of higher risk aversion such as the US dollar and Japanese yen have not strengthened and remain in a broad range. It is difficult to predict the damage from the flu and much depends on its severity and how much it spreads but the relative calm in the market is at least encouraging for now.