Coronavirus spread forces investors to think again

March 05, 2020 13:13
Global growth could suffer a demand shock in the first half of 2020 amid the coronavirus outbreak, the author says. Photo: Bloomberg

With official statistics suggesting that the coronavirus outbreak in China was coming under control, many investors concluded that the disease would have only a short-term impact on the global economy. But a marked uptick in cases outside of China suggests the initial response to the virus may not have been rigorous enough, and is challenging investor complacency. While the long-term impact may still turn out to be limited, investor sentiment is a key factor and the response of global markets has been broadly negative. As some investors shift into perceived safe-haven assets, including gold and US Treasuries, this negative sentiment may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Global growth is facing demand and supply shocks

In China, the virus containment efforts will have a significant impact on the economy, with a sharp fall expected in first-quarter economic growth – potentially down to zero. With more than 10 percent of the country’s population effectively in lockdown, consumer demand is depressed across multiple sectors. Over the course of two weeks in January, as the outbreak first took hold, hotel occupancy across China fell from 70 percent to just 14 percent. Flights and travel have been reduced or cut altogether, while retailers, cinemas, restaurants and casinos have been closed in major centers.

A fall in tourism will have an impact beyond China, particularly in surrounding Asian economies. Tourism is an important growth driver for the Philippines, Thailand and Hong Kong, which depend on revenue from tourists arriving from mainland China.

Overall, consumer demand has experienced a notable slowdown in China and elsewhere in Asia, and this subdued sentiment is spreading to Europe. Global growth could suffer a demand shock in the first half of 2020. In some sectors, such as automotives, this demand may be deferred; in other sectors, where spend is more discretionary, it will be lost for good.

Global GDP will likely take a hit

The size of the Chinese economy – and the extent to which it is integrated globally – leave the world economy highly vulnerable to any prolonged disruptions. Our estimates indicate that the global value chain can withstand up to a month of Chinese production outages, given current inventory buffers. If Chinese factories remain closed beyond February, the impact could cause production shutdowns and product shortages in other countries. The most vulnerable sectors include automotives and technology, and retailers could experience product shortages. In the US, estimates are for a GDP hit of 0.25 percent per month starting in March and growing thereafter. European companies with production facilities in China have begun to report that they are ramping up production, which could help provide some respite for global supply chains.

Central banks may need to act further

China and its financial system will likely need to support a serious cash crunch due to decreased economic activity – with reduced employment, production and taxation. Rising financing pressures could lead to credit withdrawals and resulting bankruptcies. Smaller enterprises are particularly vulnerable as companies face reduced demand, supply bottlenecks, labor shortages and wage pressures.

The People's Bank of China (PBoC) will continue to do all it can to ensure that smaller enterprises and related sectors do not collapse, having already cut interest rates – a move mirrored by the central banks of Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Mexico, the Philippines and Thailand. Whether central bank liquidity can boost economies and markets more generally is moot since the underlying economic fundamentals are seizing up quickly, and this additional stimulus may not be a panacea.

The longer the uncertainty continues, the greater the pull of safe havens is likely to be for investors. A strengthening US dollar could drain confidence from many Asian and emerging markets, especially against the worrisome backdrop of Argentina’s debt restructuring. We expect the dominant trend to be a "flight to safety" into the US dollar and US assets.

Take an active approach amid continued volatility

With interest rates low – and expected to remain so – we continue to recommend that clients take some risk as there are still some good investment opportunities in markets. Long-duration assets – especially US Treasuries – will continue to offer a hedge for many long equity positions, although these positions need to be tested for rising recession risks. Other global bond markets like Australia and New Zealand offer the same attraction and could be paired with the high USD yields in India and Indonesia to support a "hunt for income".

In addition, given that large parts of the European market did not fully participate in the rally in the last quarter of 2019, European equities may fare comparatively better in a market under pressure as the "height of fall" is lower than in other markets.

With governments and central bankers concerned that the coronavirus outbreak represents a serious “black swan" event, we think there could be more interest rate reductions and expansions of existing quantitative easing policies, which will support gold and related commodities.

With volatility rising, the case for being active is clear. Those looking to be contrarian, given the recent concentration into mega-cap US technology stocks, should consider revisiting unfashionable areas like UK equities, which were thwarted by Brexit. China A-shares, where the recovery within China will be felt first and sharpest, could be another opportunity. Investors with long-term horizons may choose to see how the crisis plays out before making any major moves.

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As Global Strategist at Allianz Global Investors, Neil Dwane is responsible for presenting strategic house views and overseeing the Economics and Strategy Research teams.