Global equity markets have moved down sharply over the past couple of days. The immediate cause has been the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVD-19). Capital markets react in real time to aggregate predictions of the future and, on average, price in an overly pessimistic view compared to the ultimate outcome. Currently, there is growing fear of a large drop off in global business activity due to the spread of COVD-19 outside of China.
When we look at the most recent response of the S&P 500 to epidemics over the past 20 years, we see that the market generally has fallen sharply during outbreaks and then rebounded within 6 months. This response follows a pretty typical market pattern where there is overreaction due to uncertainty in the outcome and then a strong bounce back.
The more uncertain the scope of an event, the higher the volatility. The scope and impact of disease outbreaks on economic activity is incredibly difficult to predict. First, there is the uncertainty associated with how the disease will spread and how severely it will impact global citizens. COVD-19 is different than several of the most recent disease outbreaks (SARS, MERS, Zika Virus) in that most patients do not experience severe symptoms and recent data suggests that some people may be infected without showing any symptoms. These characteristics make the probability of a tragic outcome much less but also make it much more challenging to control the spread. Technology and communication have also advanced and are being leveraged to extents not previously possible. How these factors will influence the spread of disease is truly unknowable.
Even if we did know exactly who would be affected and how, the tie between the human cost and the economic cost is indirect at best. Government and business response will vary and may have profound or very little effect.
When there is a very limited data set, it is important not to jump to the conclusion that the past predicts the future. Just because markets have rebounded quickly in the past does not mark this as a buying opportunity. As discussed above, each epidemic is unique, and the ultimate impact is uncertain.
We are well into an economic expansion that is long, by historical standards. Bear markets typically have a trigger that is not necessarily the underlying cause, but more like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The divide between the performance of US growth stocks and the rest of the global equity markets (US small and value stocks, international and emerging stocks) has reached levels not seen since the late 1990s. At some point, these large divergences have always closed. Whether a decade from now we will look back on COVD-19 as the triggering event for a major shift, no one knows.
Our investment approach, during market pullbacks and always, is to stay true to our disciplined rebalancing strategy. We don’t predict the future direction of the market or specifically buy or sell based on recent market movements. Rather, we consistently monitor your portfolio for under or overweight positions and execute trades to bring the portfolio back to target. Because of the continued relative outperformance of US growth stocks, many clients have reached the point where they are overweight in this asset class, which has resulted in sells in these positions and buys of underweight asset classes in the portfolio, typically bonds.
As the market has swooned, we have also been selling partial or full positions to capture unrealized losses which are used to offset taxable gains and reduce your overall tax bill. The cash generated from the sells is reinvested in a substitute position in the same asset class. Entering a substitute position maintains the target investment objective of the portfolio, keeping you positioned to achieve your long-term financial goals while locking in the tax savings.
We hope that through these times, you can find peace of mind in knowing that we are constantly monitoring your portfolio to ensure the best chance of success in achieving your goals. If you have any questions about activity in your portfolio, please don’t hesitate to reach out.