COVID-19 fears have proliferated to such a large extent that confidence is being shaken to the core. Confidence in markets, policy makers and the system itself is being damaged. Today’s moves in markets have been dramatic, continuing days and weeks of turmoil, as panic liquidation of risk assets and conversely buying of safe assets, is leading to intense asset market volatility. Economic fears are running rampant, with the failure of OPEC to agree a deal to prop up oil prices over the weekend adding further fuel to the fire. Consequently, oil prices dropped a massive 30%, leading to a further dumping of stocks.
When does it end? Confidence needs to return, but this will not be easy. Policy makers in some countries seems to have got it right, for example Singapore, where containment is still feasible. In Italy the government has attempted to put around 16 million people in quarantine given the rapid spread of the virus in the country. However, in many countries the main aim has to be effective mitigation rather than containment. I am by no means an expert, but some experts predict that as much as 70% of the world’s population could be infected. Washing hands properly, using hand sanitizers, social distancing and avoiding large gathering, appears to the main advice of specialist at least until a cure is found, which could be some months away.
In the meantime, markets look increasingly shattered and expectations of more aggressive central bank and governmental action is growing. Indeed, there is already significantly further easing priced into expectations for the Federal Reserve and other major central banks. This week, the European Central Bank is likely to join the fray, with some form of liquidity support/lending measures likely to be implemented. Similarly, the Bank of England is set to cut interest rates and implement other measures to support lending and help provide some stability. The UK government meanwhile, is set to announce a budget that will contain several measures to help support the economy as the virus spreads.
It is also likely that the US government announces more measures this week to help shore up confidence, including a temporary expansion of paid sick leave and help for companies facing disruption. What will also be focused on is whether there will an increase in number of virus tests being done, given the limited number of tests carried out so far. These steps will likely be undertaken in addition to the $7.8bn emergency spending bill signed into law at the end of last week.
All of this will be welcome, but whether it will be sufficient to combat the panic and fear spreading globally is by no means clear. Markets are in free fall and investors are looking for guidance. Until fear and panic lessen whatever governments and central banks do will be insufficient, but they may eventually help to ease the pain. In the meantime, at a time of heightened volatility investors will need to batten down the hatches and hope that the sell off abates, but at the least should steer clear of catching falling knives.