The last few weeks have seen escalating concern that a new coronavirus (called 2019 novel coronavirus or nCoV) originating in the Chinese city of Wuhan in Hubei province will become a global pandemic. Concern has been heightened after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak an “international public health emergency” on 30 January and the number of cases has continued to escalate.
While this is first and foremost a human-crisis, there has been increasing concern that the associated disruption to economic activity will trigger a global economic slump. Consequently, share markets have seen falls (ranging from 3% for global and Australian shares to around 7% for Asian shares and 12% for Chinese shares), commodity prices have fallen, and bond yields have collapsed again. While the current situation is highly uncertain, the experience with SARS, bird flu, swine flu & Ebola highlight worst-case pandemic fears don’t usually eventuate.
Here is a summary of information regarding nCoV:
To provide some context it is worth reviewing past pandemics – both real and feared. There were three influenza pandemics in the last century: 1918-19, 1957 and 1968. The 1957 and 1968 pandemics are estimated to have killed up to 4 million people. However, the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was the most severe. While the mortality rate was low, up to 50 million people died worldwide. With a big proportion of the population staying at home, economic activity was severely disrupted, although this was compounded by the ending of World War I. US industrial production slumped 18% between March 1918 and March 1919. Australian real GDP slumped 5.5% in 1919-20 (but then rebounded 13.6% in 1920-21). The share market impact is hard to discern given the ending of WWI, however, US and Australian share markets rose through much of the pandemic period.
The SARS outbreak of 2003 is a more useful guide. After emerging in China around February 2003, SARS infected about 8000 people (mostly in Asia) in 30 countries over a five-month period and had a mortality rate of about 9%. SARS had a big negative impact on the countries most affected as people stayed home for fear of catching it. GDP in China, Hong Kong and Singapore slumped by over 2% in the June quarter of 2003. Growth then subsequently rebounded.
Reflecting SARS, Asian shares fell in April 2003, even though global shares started to move out of a three-year bear market from March. The April 2003 low in Asian shares coincided with a peaking in the number of new cases.
Most pandemics have taken 6-18 months to run their course and peter out as measures are taken to slow their spread (eg, hygiene, quarantining, banning gatherings, preventing travel). SARS ended quicker due to the nature of the virus and rapid action by authorities. In 2005/2006, there was significant concern that a severe strain of bird flu (called H5N1), which was resulting in human casualties, mainly in parts of Asia where people had contact with chickens, would mutate into a form that was readily transmissible between humans. However, this didn’t really eventuate and as such the economic impact was modest although it did cause bouts of volatility in share markets. Similarly, a concern that the spread of swine flu would become a global pandemic rattled share markets for a while around April 2009, and Ebola did the same in 2014, but both quickly faded.
After strong double-digit gains over the last year and with investor sentiment pushing up to high levels indicating a degree of complacency, share markets were at high risk of a correction in mid-Jan and the fears around coronavirus have provided the trigger. Given their greater sensitivity to Chinese growth, commodity prices like Chinese shares are down by more and the Australian dollar has fallen to October lows below $US0.67. What happens from here depends on how long it takes for the outbreak to be contained. The higher number of cases than with SARS or swine flu suggests a greater economic impact. But given the range of possibilities, the best way to get a handle on the economic and investment market impact is to consider several scenarios. Here we consider two.
1. Containment within the next month or two – the number of cases continues to rise but it remains mainly contained to China (and Hubei) and the number of new cases starts to peak in the next month or so. This would allow travel restrictions to be removed by the June quarter. Under this scenario:
2. Global pandemic – the number of cases continues to escalate beyond China and aren’t contained until say mid-year.
Concluding comment and what to watch
While there is reason for concern and it is easy to dream up nightmare scenarios, the experience with SARS, bird flu (with “predictions” it could kill as many as 150 million people) and the mini panic regarding swine flu and Ebola tell us that the worst-case fears of pandemics usually don’t come to pass. Rapid containment measures provide some confidence this will be the case. As such, our base case scenario (with 75% probability) is one of containment over the next month or two. This could still see more downside in share markets and bond yields in the near term, but they are likely to rebound by the June quarter as economic growth rebounds. The key things to watch are:
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