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Posts from the ‘General, Economic and Political’ Category

7
Apr

High-Frequency Indicators: Where to Look for Signs of Recovery

Since the pandemic began, disruptions in business activity have varied greatly from region to region, and often from one week to the next, according to the severity of local COVID-19 outbreaks. Unfortunately, many of the official government statistics used to gauge the health of the U.S. economy are backward looking and somewhat delayed.

Changes in the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) indicate the rate at which the economy is growing or shrinking, but the first GDP estimate is not published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis until about one month after each quarter ends. GDP increased at a 4.3% rate in the fourth quarter of 2020 but posted the worst annual decline (-3.5%) since 1946. 1.

Rapid changes in virus conditions — for better or worse — can make many of the monthly reports that gauge employment, consumer spending, and production seem outdated and irrelevant by the time they are released. Consequently, economists and investors have been focusing on more timely data sources to monitor the economic impact of the pandemic throughout the nation. This information is reported every week, and in some cases every day, by government agencies or private companies with access to key business insights.

Here are some of the high-frequency indicators that may be helpful in evaluating the progress of the economic recovery.

Employment picture

A weekly report from the Department of Labor includes the number of new claims for unemployment insurance benefits under state programs filed by workers who recently lost their jobs, as well as the number of continuing claims filed by those who remain unemployed. This provides an early look at whether the labor market is improving or worsening on a state-by-state and national basis. For the week ending March 20, 2021, first-time claims for unemployment benefits fell to 684,000, the lowest level since before economic lockdowns began in mid-March of 2020. 2.

The ASA Staffing Index from the American Staffing Association tracks weekly changes in temporary and contract employment. Many employers rely on temporary help before hiring additional permanent employees, so staffing agency trends tend to lead nonfarm employment by three to six months. As of March 8-14, 2021, there were 11.2% more staffing jobs than there were one year earlier. 3

Consumer behavior

The proprietary Johnson Redbook Index captures consumer spending trends based on weekly data from a representative sample of thousands of large general merchandise and apparel retailers. In an encouraging sign, this key index improved 9.4% year-over-year on March 23, 2021. 4

The reservation app OpenTable has been monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on the hard-hit restaurant industry, providing data that doubles as an indicator of the “openness” of local economies around the world. Daily data shows changes in the number of people dining at restaurants compared with the same day of the same week in 2019. As of March 28, 2021, the weekly average number of U.S. seated diners was still down 29% from 2019, but had bounced back considerably from the last week in February, when the average was 40% below 2019. 5

Mobility and travel

Other technology companies rolled out tools designed to help public health officials and policymakers around the world monitor day-to-day mobility trends with data collected from smartphone apps. Google’s Community Mobility Reports show changes in visits to places like grocery stores, retail shops, and parks. Apple’s Mobility Trends Reports show changes in routing requests (since January 2019) for walking, driving, and public transportation trips, the latter of which have been slower to recover.6

The number of people who pass through U.S. airport checkpoints is posted daily by the Transportation Security Administration. On March 21, 2021, a spring-break surge caused the number of air travelers to rise above 1.5 million for the first time in about a year. Still, this total was far below the 2.2 million air travelers on the same Sunday in 2019. 7

The hotel occupancy rate (released weekly by STR) is another good indicator of the willingness of consumers and businesses to spend money on travel. U.S. hotel occupancy hit 58.9% in the week ending March 20, 2021, the highest level in a year. More importantly, the industry had recovered nearly 85% of comparable 2019 occupancy. 8

Real-time tracker

In May 2020, Harvard-based nonprofit Opportunity Insights, in partnership with several private-sector providers of high-frequency data, launched a real-time Economic Tracker as a free public service. Interactive charts show day-to-day changes in U.S. debit- and credit-card spending, small-business revenue, employment, online job postings, and time spent outside the home. In addition to nationwide statistics, disparities in progress can be broken down by income and industry, as well as by state or metro area.

Fed indexes

The Weekly Economic Index (WEI), which is published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, signals the state of the U.S. economy based on 10 different indicators of consumer behavior, the labor market, and production that are available daily or weekly. The WEI is scaled to the four-quarter GDP growth rate, which means the weekly result is the economic growth that could be expected if current activity continued for a year. For the week ending March 20, 2021, the WEI jumped to 4.14% from -0.33% the previous week. 9

In addition, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta keeps a running estimate of GDP changes — GDPNow — that is updated based on a model that incorporates incoming economic data. On March 26, 2021, the growth estimate for the first quarter of 2021 was 4.7%. 10

These estimates are based on current conditions, are subject to change, and may not come to pass. Neither is an official forecast of the Federal Reserve. When investing, it’s generally wise to maintain a long-term approach based on your personal goals, time frame, and risk tolerance, rather than react too quickly to shifting economic dynamics

1) U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2021

2) U.S. Department of Labor, 2021

3) American Staffing Association, 2021

4) Investing.com, 2021

5) OpenTable, 2021

6) Apple Mobility Trends, 2021

7) Transportation Security Administration, 2021

8) STR, 2021

9-10) Federal Reserve, 2021

11
Mar

National Consumer Protection Week: Beware of Pandemic Scams

This past year, scam artists have taken advantage of people’s concerns over the coronavirus pandemic to defraud them of money. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), consumers reported losing more than $3.3 billion to fraud in 2020, up from $1.8 billion in 2019. (1)

This week is National Consumer Protection Week, the perfect time to take steps to protect yourself from the increase in fraud, identity theft and other scams. Here are some of the latest ones to watch out for.

Unemployment benefit scams

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there has been a surge in identity theft related to unemployment insurance claims. In fact, over $5 billion in potentially fraudulent unemployment claims were paid between March and October of 2020.  (2)

Typically, these types of scams involve a fraudster trying to use your personal information to claim unemployment benefits. If you receive an unexpected prepaid card for unemployment benefits, see an unexpected deposit from your state in your bank account, or receive a Form 1099-G for 2020 unemployment compensation that you did not apply for, report it to your state unemployment insurance office as soon as possible.

Economic impact payment scams

Scammers have come up with a number of schemes related to the economic impact payments sent to taxpayers by the federal government. It is important to note that at this time, all first and second economic impact payments have already been sent out. A third economic impact payment may be sent out to taxpayers in March.

The IRS is warning taxpayers to be aware of scammers who:

  • Use words such as  “stimulus check” or “stimulus payment” instead of the official term, “economic impact payment”
  • Ask you to “sign up” for your economic impact payment check
  • Contact you by phone, email, text or social media for  verification of personal and/or banking information to receive or speed up your economic impact payment

In most cases, the IRS will deposit economic impact payments directly into accounts that taxpayers previously provided on their tax returns. If the IRS does not have a taxpayer’s direct-deposit information, a check or prepaid debit card will be mailed to the taxpayer’s address on file with the IRS. For more information visit irs.gov.

Fraudulent products and vaccine scams

This past year, the Federal Trade Commission has warned about scam artists attempting to sell fraudulent products that claim to treat, prevent or diagnose COVID-19.

With the arrival of new COVID-19 vaccines, the FTC is warning consumers to also be wary of possible vaccine scams. The FTC is urging consumers to contact their state or local health department in order to find out how, when and where to get a COVID-19 vaccine. In addition, the FTC warned consumers to avoid scammers who:

  • Offer to put your name on a vaccine list or get early access to a vaccine for a fee
  • Call, text or email you about the vaccine and ask for financial information

Protecting yourself from scams

Fortunately,  there are some things you can do to protect yourself from scams, including those related to the coronavirus pandemic:

  • Don’t click on suspicious or unfamiliar links in emails, text messages or instant messaging services — visit government websites directly for important information.
  • Don’t answer a phone call if you don’t recognize the phone number — instead, let it go to voicemail and check later to verify the caller.
  • Keep device and security software up to date, maintain strong passwords and use multi-factor authentication.
  • Never share personal or financial information via email, text message or over the phone.
  • If you see a scam, be sure to report it to the FTC at ftc.gov, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) at tigta.gov and your local police department.

(1)Federal Trade Commission, February 2021
(2)U.S. Department of Labor, February 2021

17
Dec

How COVID-19 Has Changed Consumer Behavior and the Future of Retail

U.S. retail sales suffered in the spring of 2020 due to safety concerns, government-mandated lockdowns, and economic uncertainty wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. Sales — including purchases at stores, restaurants, and online — plunged from $483.95 billion in March to $412.77 billion in April, a record 16.4% drop.1)

Fortunately, retail sales rebounded sharply after the economy began to reopen in May, matched pre-pandemic levels in June ($529.96 billion), and continued to rise steadily from July through September. But sales softened in October, ticking up just 0.3% to $553.33 billion.2)

The arrival of an effective vaccine could inspire some holiday cheer, though it probably won’t be widely available until next spring.3)  Until then, consumers will likely spend more time at home.

U.S. consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of all economic activity, so it’s good news that many businesses and consumers have adapted quickly to the new normal created by the pandemic.4) Here’s a look at recent changes in consumer behavior, the state of the retail industry, and what these trends could mean for the broader U.S. economy.

Stay-at-home spending shifts

Some workers with stable incomes have been able to save money they would normally spend on transportation, gym memberships, restaurant meals, and expensive “experiences” such as vacations, concerts, sporting events, and other live shows. On the other hand, many households are spending more on home improvements, household goods, fitness equipment, and other lifestyle purchases that make sheltering in place more tolerable.5)

For example, huge demand for bicycles resulted in surprising shortages.6) And with offices closed and most special events cancelled or postponed, a preference for casual and comfortable clothing has decimated consumer demand for more formal attire like business suits and dresses.7)

A swift expansion of e-commerce was also unleashed. New online habits were created in the first three months of the pandemic, accelerating the adoption of digital technologies that might have taken 10 years to achieve otherwise.8)

When lockdowns and social distancing measures were put in place, many consumers were compelled to shop online and use other digital services (e.g., video chat, virtual doctor visits, and online classes) for the first time. Surveys suggest that a vast majority of new users found online services to be useful and convenient; many said they will continue to use them permanently.9)

But anxious consumers have also been boosting their savings. The personal saving rate — the percentage of disposable income that people don’t spend — hit a record 33.6% in April before falling to 14.1% in August, far above February’s 8.3% rate.10) When consumers prioritize saving, it may help individual households build financial stability and prepare for retirement, but it can also hold back the nation’s economic growth.

Traditional retailers on the ropes

Big-box retailers that sell groceries and other goods in one place and home-improvement stores were deemed “essential” in the spring. Regardless of local virus conditions, these businesses have remained open for a steady flow of customers eager to stock up on food and other necessities. As a result, they have generally been able to book healthy profits.11)

Meanwhile, temporary closures, capacity limits, and a drop-off in overall customer traffic have taken a toll on nonessential retailers that couldn’t offer a convenient online shopping experience with home or curbside delivery. The pandemic may land the blow that knocks out some familiar brick-and-mortar retailers, many of which were already buckling under excessive debt and fierce competition from e-commerce giants.

Retail bankruptcies and store closings are on track for a record year in 2020. By mid-August, 29 U.S. retailers had filed for Chapter 11 protection, including several long-standing department-store chains. More than 10,000 permanent store closings have already been announced in 2020, vacating roughly 130 million square feet of physical retail space.12)

A holiday season like no other

Higher unemployment and wage cuts might have had a more severe impact on consumer spending from March to October were it not for the expanded unemployment benefits and stimulus checks delivered to consumers by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. At the time of this writing, Congress had not passed a follow-up stimulus package, and consumers were facing new challenges going into the holiday season.

More than 11 million U.S. workers were still unemployed in October, before a nationwide surge in virus cases and hospitalizations sparked a new round of business restrictions and closures in mid-November.13-14) CARES Act provisions that offer financial support for affected consumers and small businesses expire by the end of December.

Holiday sales figures are often considered an economic barometer, reflecting consumer confidence and funds for discretionary spending. In 2019, holiday spending in November and December rose 4.1% over 2018, suggesting that economic growth was picking up steam.15) But holiday shoppers were blissfully unaware that a pandemic was on its way.

Black Friday holiday deals are designed to create a frenzy and lure throngs of shoppers into stores. But retailers seemed to agree that a different approach was needed in 2020: Promotions were offered online and earlier; store hours were shortened and capacity was limited; and unlike in past years, most stores stayed closed on Thanksgiving.

The prospects for holiday retail sales in 2020 are murky, but consumers are expected to purchase more gifts online than ever before — and possibly too many for shipments to be delivered on time. To be on the safe side, the National Retail Federation is recommending that consumers get their shopping done early and take advantage of curbside pickup.16

1) The Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2020

2) U.S. Census Bureau, 2020

3) The New York Times, November 17, 2020

4) U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2020

5) The Wall Street Journal, November 17, 2020

6) The New York Times, June 18, 2020

7) The Wall Street Journal, August 27, 2020

8-9) The Wall Street Journal, November 15, 2020

10) The Wall Street Journal, October 25, 2020

11) The Wall Street Journal, November 18, 2020

12) The Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2020

13) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020

14), 16) Associated Press, November 11 and 17, 2020

15) National Retail Federation, 2020

20
Nov

The Jobs Recovery: More Work to Be Done

In April 2020, the U.S. economy lost an astonishing 20.8 million jobs, by far the largest loss recorded in a single month dating back to 1939. To put this in perspective, the second largest monthly job loss was about 2 million in September 1945, when defense industries reduced production at the end of World War II.1

The April unemployment rate spiked to 14.7%, the highest official rate on record (though unemployment has been estimated as high as 25% during the Great Depression). Just two months earlier, it was 3.5%, a 50-year low.2-3

As these numbers indicate, the impact of the COVID-19 recession on U.S. employment is unprecedented. As we approach the end of a very difficult year, this might be a good time to look at the state of the jobs recovery so far and consider its future prospects.

Measuring unemployment

The headline unemployment rate for October was 6.9%, a 1% improvement over September and less than half the rate in April. The rate is moving in the right direction but has a long way to go, and the headline rate — officially called U-3 — is not always the best indication of the state of employment. The U-3 rate only measures those who are unemployed and have actively looked for work during the previous four weeks.4

The broadest measure, U-6, includes discouraged and other “marginally attached” workers — those who are not currently looking for a job but are available to work and have looked in the last 12 months — and part-time workers who want and are available for full-time work. By this measure, the unemployment rate in October was 12.1%, suggesting that almost one out of eight Americans who want to work full-time cannot do so.5

Among the positive news in the October report was that almost 750,000 people age 20 and older — including 480,000 women — joined the labor force (meaning they are either employed or actively looking for work). This came after 1.1 million left in September — about 80% of them women — suggesting they may have dropped out to care for children attending school remotely or because they lacked child care. Women are also more likely to work in jobs that have been especially hard-hit by the pandemic. Since February, almost 2.2 million women have left the labor force compared with just 1.4 million men.6-7

Diminishing job gains

Prior to March 2020, the U.S. economy added jobs for 113 consecutive months dating back to October 2010. With the beginning of lockdowns in March, followed by the April collapse, more than 22 million jobs were lost over a two-month period.8

About 12 million jobs returned over the next six months, but that leaves the economy down 10 million jobs, and growth has slowed substantially since almost 5 million jobs were added in June during the first wave of reopenings. September and October saw gains of 672,000 and 638,000, respectively — great months during a healthy economy, but not nearly enough to catch up.9 If job creation continues at that pace, it would take about 15 months to get back to pre-pandemic levels, and that may be optimistic. In the October Economic Forecasting Survey of The Wall Street Journal, more than 40% of economists projected that payrolls would not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023, and about 10% thought it would take even longer.10

An uneven recession

Different industries respond differently during any recession, but the pandemic has created big disparities that have led to large-scale layoffs. The leisure and hospitality industry has been hit the hardest, with total payrolls still down 20% from a year ago, despite more than 4.8 million employees returning to work over the last six months. By contrast, payrolls in the financial industry are down just 0.9%. Manufacturing is down 4.5%, and professional/business services is down 4.9%. Driven by demand for housing, the construction industry added 84,000 jobs in October and is down just 2.6% over October 2019.11

The retail industry added more than 100,000 jobs in October and is down only 3.0% from a year ago, aided by the strength of building supply stores, warehouse stores, and food and beverage stores, which have added almost 300,000 employees over the past year. Even with many locations reopening, employment in clothing stores is still down almost 25%, while sporting goods and hobby stores are down 16%. Online retailers, which have flourished during the pandemic, added 54,000 employees over the last six months, but payrolls are flat over a year ago.12 In 2019, retailers hired more than a half million temporary employees during the winter holiday season, but with so many brick-and-mortar stores struggling, the holidays may not provide as much of a boost this year.13

Imagining the future

In the near term, the employment picture will depend in large part on controlling the coronavirus. The spike in cases going into the winter cold and flu season suggests that the return-to-work process may slow down. Recent news regarding a vaccine is encouraging, and some high-risk groups might be inoculated by the end of the year. However, a vaccine may not be widely available until spring 2021.14

While an effective vaccine could be a game changer, it will not instantly open businesses or return all employees to the same jobs they had before the pandemic. For example, the shift to online retailing, which requires fewer employees, will likely continue. On the other hand, pent-up demand for travel and dining in restaurants could lead to a surge in hiring. A recent survey of frequent travelers found that 99% are eager to travel again, and 70% plan to take a vacation in 2021.15

In the best case, the pandemic might inspire changes that will strengthen the American workforce. In October, more than 21% of U.S. workers were still working remotely due to COVID-19, and many companies are making remote work a permanent option — a paradigm shift that may open new jobs for workers living outside of urban centers.16 The combination of remote work, remote learning, cheap technology, and low interest rates might offer opportunities to rethink broad business, employment, and education models. In the long term, the jobs recovery could depend on innovation as much as a vaccine.

1-2, 4-6, 8-9, 11-12, 16) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020

3) The Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2020

7) Associated Press, November 8, 2020

10) The Wall Street Journal Economic Forecasting Survey, October 2020

13) National Retail Federation, 2020

14) MarketWatch, November 13, 2020

15) Travel Leaders Group, October 16, 2020

14
Jul

The Shape of Economic Recovery

On June 8, 2020, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which has official responsibility for determining U.S. business cycles, announced that February 2020 marked the end of an expansion that began in 2009 and the beginning of a recession.(1)  This was no great surprise considering widespread business closures due to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting spike in unemployment, but it was an unusually quick official announcement.

The NBER defines a recession as “a decline in economic activity that lasts more than a few months,” so it typically takes from six months to a year to determine when a recession started. In this case, the NBER’s Business Cycle Dating Committee concluded that “the unprecedented magnitude of the decline in employment and production, and its broad reach across the entire economy,” warrants the designation of a recession, “even if it turns out to be briefer than earlier contractions.”(2)

Another common definition of a recession is two or more quarters of negative growth in gross domestic product (GDP), and it’s clear that the current situation will meet that test. The U.S. economy shrank at an annual rate of 5% in the first quarter of 2020 — a significant but deceptively small decline, because the economy was strong during the first part of the quarter. (3)

The first official estimate for the second quarter will not be available until July 30, but the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta keeps a running estimate that is updated based on incoming economic data. As of July 9, the Atlanta Fed estimated that GDP would drop at a 35.5% annual rate in the second quarter.(4) By comparison, the largest quarterly drop since World War II was 10% in the first quarter of 1958, followed by 8.4% in the fourth quarter of 2008.(5)

Most economists believe that GDP will turn upward in the third quarter as businesses continue to open.(6) But with the extreme decline in business activity during the first half of 2020, it will take sustained growth to return the economy to its pre-recession level. In its June economic projections, the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee projected a 6.5% annual drop in GDP for 2020, followed by 5.0% growth in 2021 and 3.5% growth in 2022.(7)  The simple math of these projections suggests the economy may not return to its 2019 level until 2022.

By the letters

Economists traditionally view economic recessions and recoveries as having a shape, named after the letter it resembles.

V-shaped — a rapid fall followed by a quick rebound to previous levels. The 1990-91 recession, which lasted only eight months and was followed by strong economic growth, was V-shaped. This type of recovery would require control of COVID-19 through testing and treatment, a quick ramp-up of business activity, and a return to pre-recession spending habits by consumers. (8-9)

U-shaped — an extended recession before the economy returns to previous levels. The Great Recession, which lasted 18 months followed by a slow recovery, was U-shaped. If COVID-19 takes longer to control and the economy does not bounce back as expected in the third quarter, the current recession could be prolonged. (10-11)

W-shaped — a “double-dip” recession in which a quick recovery begins but drops back sharply before beginning again. The U.S. economy experienced a W-shaped  recession in 1980-82, when a second oil crisis and high inflation triggered a brief recession, followed by a quick recovery and another recession sparked by overly aggressive anti-inflation policies by the Federal Reserve. This type of recession could occur if a second wave of COVID-19 forces businesses to shut down again later in the year, just as the economy is recovering. (12-13)

L-shaped — a steep drop followed by a long period of high unemployment and low economic output. The Great Depression, which lasted 43 months with four straight years of negative GDP growth, was L-shaped. This is unlikely in the current environment, considering the strength of the U.S. economy before COVID-19 and the unprecedented economic support from the Federal Reserve. (14-15)

A swoosh

In the July Economic Forecasting Survey by The Wall Street Journal, which polls more than 60 U.S. economists each month, 13.0% of respondents thought the recovery would be V-shaped, 11.1% expected it to be W-shaped, 5.5% indicated it would be U-shaped, and none thought it would be L-shaped.(16)

The vast majority — 70.4% — believed the recovery would take a “Nike swoosh” shape, which suggests a sharp drop followed by a long, slow recovery.(17) This view factors in the possibility that businesses may be slow to rehire, and consumers could be slow to resume  pre-recession spending patterns. It also considers that some businesses may be impacted longer than others. Airlines do not expect to return to pre-COVID passenger activity until 2022, and movie theaters, beauty salons, sporting events, and other high-contact businesses may struggle until a vaccine is developed. (18)

Adding to the prognosis for a slow recovery is the fact that the rest of the world is also fighting the pandemic, including many countries where growth was already more sluggish than in the United States. And if the virus resurges in the fall or early 2021, the recovery may turn jagged with significant setbacks along the way. (19)

While the consensus suggests that the duration of the actual recession may be brief, it is much too early to know the true shape of the recovery. However, the economy will recover, as it has in even more challenging situations. All these projections indicate that a key factor in determining the shape of recovery will be control of COVID-19. Beyond that, the underlying question is whether the virus has fundamentally changed the U.S. and global economies.

(1-2), (8), (10), (12), (14) National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2020

(3), (5), (15) U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, June 2020

(4) Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, July 9, 2020

(6), (16-17) The Wall Street Journal Economic Forecasting Survey, July 2020

(7) Federal Reserve, June 10, 2020

(9), (11), (13) Forbes Advisor, June 8, 2020

(18-19) The Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2020

2
Jun

Think Twice Before Speculating on a COVID-19 Cure

As hundreds of companies race to develop vaccines and drug therapies that could help end the COVID-19 pandemic, news reports on successful or failed trials affect individual stock prices and can trigger swings in the broader market.(1) Understandably, this highly contagious virus — and its severe economic repercussions — has a knack for stirring up investors’ emotions.

By May 27, 2020, COVID-19 was responsible for more than 100,000 deaths in the United States and about 355,000 worldwide. (2) Investors are human beings first, and most of us are waiting anxiously for a cure that would stop the suffering and allow normal life to resume.

Governments and nonprofits have provided billions of dollars in support, and some red tape has been loosened, all to help speed a costly, complex, and time-consuming drug development process.(3) Even so, this influx of public funding — along with a concerted humanitarian effort — suggests that some of the most important discoveries may not generate profits for investors.

High hopes for a vaccine

A vaccine prepares the body’s immune system to recognize and resist a specific disease, preventing it from causing sickness and spreading to others. As of May 27, the World Health Organization (WHO) was tracking 125 experimental vaccine candidates globally, 10 of which had advanced to clinical evaluation. Another 115 candidates are still in the pre-clinical stage, which involves testing in cells and/or animals and waiting for regulators to review results and grant permission for human trials. (4)

Clinical studies are conducted in three phases. During Phase I, a small study of healthy people tests the safety and immune response of the vaccine at different doses. Phase II is a randomized, double-blind, controlled study of hundreds of people that further assesses safety, efficacy, and optimal dosing. If all goes well, clinical studies expand to include thousands of people in Phase III. (5) These larger studies can be challenging because they test how well the vaccine works in an environment where the virus is spreading. (6)

Despite the urgency, COVID-19 vaccine candidates can’t skip any of these crucial steps, but timelines have been accelerated. (7) Health officials have said it could take 12 to 18 months before a vaccine may be available. (8)

The U.S. government has struck supply deals with several pharmaceutical companies to support research into leading vaccine candidates and boost the manufacturing capacity needed to produce 300 million doses by fall of 2020, should a candidate prove effective. (9)

Other nations and well-funded nonprofits have made similar deals. Massive public investment allows drug makers to get a head start on manufacturing doses while waiting for human trials to conclude and approval to be granted. In return, at least one drug maker has promised to sell an approved vaccine without making a profit during the pandemic. (10)

A COVID-19 vaccine is not imminent — a point made by the fact that there is no vaccine to prevent HIV after several decades of research. Still, early progress on several fronts offers reasons to be cautiously optimistic. (11)

Testing old and new therapies

The development and approval process for experimental drugs is similar to the one for vaccines. Companies that develop successful treatments are likely to face the same manufacturing challenges and pricing pressures. In the meantime, doctors are testing existing therapies that might help COVID-19 patients. (12)

One existing antiviral drug was approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after it was determined to help hospitalized patients with severe COVID-19 recover faster. The pharmaceutical giant that makes the drug has ramped up production and is donating about 1.5 million doses as a public good. (13)

Scientists are also working on targeted antibody therapies, which depend on the identification of specific antibodies that bind with and neutralize the novel coronavirus. At high doses the right antibodies might prevent the disease from worsening in hospitalized patients, and at lower doses the same antibodies could provide short-term immunity for front-line workers.

Effective antibody drugs are easier to develop but more complex to manufacture. Thus, there is limited global capacity to produce the large amounts needed. Governments, nonprofits, and companies that are normally competitors are reportedly discussing ways to share manufacturing plants if one company’s antibody proves to work better than the others. (14)

Antibody treatments could help save lives as long as COVID-19 is a threat, but widespread vaccination could make them obsolete. If a successful vaccine materializes, many valiant efforts to develop beneficial therapies may never make much money.

More implications for investors

As of May 21, 2020, the U.S. government had invested at least $2 billion for the development of coronavirus vaccines and $300 million for antiviral and antibody therapies. (15) New biotechnologies, generous financial support, and unprecedented cooperation between governments and industry leaders could shave several years off typical development timelines. (16)

It’s rarely easy to predict which new products will perform well enough in multiple rounds of studies to earn regulatory approval. Moreover, the stock market’s mid-May rally and high valuations for biotech and pharmaceutical shares imply that success in developing COVID-19 treatments might already be priced in — especially for newsmakers. (17)

Headline-induced price swings suggest that investors are making decisions driven by hopes and fears, and possibly based on limited information, instead of a realistic assessment of an investment’s longer-term earnings potential. Now more than ever, it’s important to have a well-researched investment strategy based on your own goals, time horizon, and risk tolerance.

All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there is no guarantee that any investment strategy will be successful.

(1), (17) The Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2020

(2) Johns Hopkins University, May 27, 2020

(3), (5), (7), (8), (16) World Economic Forum, 2020

(4) World Health Organization, May 27, 2020

(6) Bloomberg News, May 7, 2020

(9), (10) The Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2020

(11) NPR.com, May 12, 2020

(12), (14), (15) Bloomberg Businessweek, April 20, 2020

(13) STAT, April 29, 2020

21
Apr

Coping with Market Volatility: Cash Can Help Manage Your Mindset

Holding an appropriate amount of cash in a portfolio can be the financial equivalent of taking deep breaths to relax. It could enhance your ability to make thoughtful investment decisions instead of impulsive ones. Having a cash position coupled with a disciplined investing strategy can change your perspective on market volatility. Knowing that you’re positioned to take advantage of a downturn by picking up bargains may increase your ability to be patient.

That doesn’t mean you should convert your portfolio to cash. Selling during a down market locks in any investment losses, and a period of extreme market volatility can make it even more difficult to choose the right time to make a large-scale move. Watching the market move up after you’ve abandoned it can be almost as painful as watching the market go down. Finally, be mindful that cash may not keep pace with inflation over time; if you have long-term goals, you need to consider the impact of a major change on your ability to achieve them.

Having a cash cushion in your portfolio isn’t necessarily the same as having a financial cushion to help cover emergencies such as medical problems or a job loss. An appropriate asset allocation that takes into account your time horizon and risk tolerance may help you avoid having to sell stocks at an inopportune time to meet ordinary expenses.

Remember that we’re here to help and to answer any questions you may have.

All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there is no guarantee that any investment strategy will be successful.

Asset allocation is a method used to help manage investment risk; it does not guarantee a profit or protect against investment loss.

Although there is no assurance that working with a financial professional will improve investment results, a professional can evaluate your objectives and available resources and help you consider appropriate long-term financial strategies.

9
Apr

Government Acts to Blunt Financial Impact of Global Pandemic

On March 11, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was officially declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, and two days later President Trump declared a national emergency.1  The unknowns surrounding a new virus make it difficult to predict the potential human and economic toll, but unprecedented steps are being taken to help slow the spread of the disease and prepare medical facilities to treat a rising number of cases. Businesses are suffering losses as they spend more to help keep workers and customers safe and/or have closed their doors to the public.

The economy — in the United States and globally — has been interrupted as abruptly as our daily routines, and a downturn is looming. This jarring reality triggered the first bear market for U.S. stocks in 11 years.2  Many people are now working from home, but a record number of workers (3.3 million) filed for unemployment in one harrowing week.3

The financial impact of the health crisis is likely to be more severe for some households, businesses, and industries than others. With lives and livelihoods at risk, the Federal Reserve, state governments, and the federal government have responded with a full slate of emergency measures.

Central bank in action

The Federal Reserve moved swiftly in recent weeks to support the U.S. economy and help alleviate stress in the financial markets. On March 3, the Fed dropped the target range for the benchmark federal funds rate by one-half percentage point to 1.00% to 1.25%, stating that the coronavirus posed evolving risks to the economic outlook.4

Following an emergency session on Sunday, March 15, the Fed slashed the rate to near zero (0% to 0.25%) and committed to at least $700 billion in debt purchases. This policy was later expanded to essentially unlimited debt purchases “in amounts needed to support smooth market functioning.” The U.S. central bank is also extending currency swaps with foreign central banks to keep high-demand U.S. dollars flowing freely around the world.5

Citing emergency powers, the Federal Reserve launched a number of lending facilities to keep credit flowing to households and businesses. These operations required permission from the Treasury Secretary and are protected from losses with Treasury funds.6

The Commercial Paper Funding Facility ensures that companies retain access to an important source of short-term credit (IOUs) often used to fund regular expenses including payroll and rent. The Primary Dealer Credit Facility provides funding to financial institutions that trade directly with the Fed and serve as market makers for U.S. Treasuries.7

The Money Market Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility will help ensure that funds can meet investor demand for redemptions. This backstop was originally limited to prime funds, which invest in short-term corporate debt, but was expanded to include funds with municipal debt. A crisis-era lending facility used to support the consumer and business credit market has also been revived.8

Two facilities have been added to support corporate debt markets. One will provide four-year bridge financing to companies with investment-grade ratings, and the other will purchase highly-rated U.S. corporate bonds. A Main Street Business Lending Program for small employers is also in the works.9

Chairman Powell has said the Fed will do everything in its power to help stabilize the markets, so lending programs could be added or expanded.10

Relief on the way

The federal tax filing deadline has been delayed to July 15, so taxpayers have extra time to file their tax returns and make payments without interest or penalties. Many states have decided to match the new federal deadline.11

An initial relief bill passed in early March provided $8.3 billion in emergency healthcare funding. A phase two relief package, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, includes free coronavirus testing and increased funding for food security programs, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance.12

This bill also provides two weeks of paid sick leave and up to 12 weeks of family and medical leave for workers at companies with 500 or fewer employees who are affected by the virus. This includes those caring for children whose schools are closed. Small and midsize employers will be reimbursed with tax credits for wages paid to affected workers.13

The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) is the most generous stimulus package in U.S. history. Many households will receive cash payments ($1,200 per adult and $500 per child) from the IRS within weeks if their incomes fall under certain thresholds. Unemployment insurance was prolonged from 26 to 39 weeks and will provide an extra $600 per week for four months. This benefit was extended to self-employed individuals, gig workers, and independent contractors who would not have qualified under the old rules.14

A $500 billion lifeline could backstop trillions in bridge loans and offer some direct aid for hard-hit cities, states, and large employers. The government can seek company equity in extreme cases. Another $349 billion will fund loans for small businesses (under 500 employees); eligible employers can borrow up to $10 million for working capital through an existing Small Business Administration program. Many paperwork requirements have been waived, and amounts paid for mortgage interest, rent, utilities, and payrolls could be forgiven if workers are retained.15

The scope of losses may ultimately depend on how quickly the spread of the virus is controlled and effective treatments and/or a vaccine are developed so the economy can reopen. But there is hope that the government policy response will save lives and help mitigate the economic effects.

Although these times are stressful for everyone, it may help to keep in mind that the U.S. economy is much like the people who live here — resourceful and resilient. We have endured shocks and recovered from serious crises before, and we can do so again.

All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there is no guarantee that any investment strategy will be successful.

1) The White House, March 18, 2020

2) Yahoo! Finance, 2020 (data for the period 3/9/2009 to 3/12/2020)

3) The Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2020

4-10) Federal Reserve, March 2020

11) Bloomberg.com, March 20, 2020

12-13) Bloomberg.com, March 18, 2020

14-15) The Wall Street Journal, March 25-26, 2020

5
Apr

CARES Act Provides Relief to Individuals and Businesses

On Friday, March 27, 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law. This $2 trillion emergency relief package is intended to assist individuals and businesses during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic crisis.  Major relief provisions are summarized here.

Unemployment provisions

The legislation provides for:

  • An additional $600 weekly benefit to those collecting unemployment benefits, through July 31, 2020
  • An additional 13 weeks of federally funded unemployment benefits, through the end of 2020, for individuals who exhaust their state unemployment benefits
  • Targeted federal reimbursement of state unemployment compensation designed to eliminate state one-week delays in providing benefits
  • Unemployment benefits through 2020 for many who would not otherwise qualify, including independent contractors and part-time workers

Recovery rebates

Most individuals will receive a direct payment from the federal government. Technically a 2020 refundable income tax credit, the rebate amount will be calculated based on 2019 tax returns filed (2018 returns in cases where a 2019 return hasn’t been filed) and sent automatically via check or direct deposit to qualifying individuals. To qualify for a payment, individuals generally must have a Social Security number and must not qualify as the dependent of another individual.

The amount of the recovery rebate is $1,200 ($2,400 if married filing a joint return) plus $500 for each qualifying child under age 17. Recovery rebates are phased out for those with adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeding $75,000 ($150,000 if married filing a joint return, $112,500 for those filing as head of household). For those with AGI exceeding the threshold amount, the allowable rebate is reduced by $5 for every $100 in income over the threshold.

While details are still being worked out, the IRS will be coordinating with other federal agencies to facilitate payment determination and distribution. For example, eligible individuals collecting Social Security benefits may not need to file a tax return in order to receive a payment.

Retirement plan provisions

  • Required minimum distributions (RMDs) from employer-sponsored retirement plans and IRAs will not apply for the 2020 calendar year; this includes any 2019 RMDs that would otherwise have to be taken in 2020
  • The 10% early-distribution penalty tax that would normally apply to distributions made prior to age 59½ (unless an exception applies) is waived for retirement plan distributions of up to $100,000 relating to the coronavirus; special re-contribution rules and income inclusion rules for tax purposes apply as well
  • Limits on loans from employer-sponsored retirement plans are expanded, with repayment delays provided

Student loans

  • The legislation provides a six-month automatic payment suspension for any student loan held by the federal government; this six-month period ends on September 30, 2020
  • Under already existing rules, up to $5,250 in payments made by an employer under an education assistance program could be excluded from an employee’s taxable income; this exclusion is expanded to include eligible student loan repayments an employer makes on an employee’s behalf before January 1, 2021

Business relief

  • An employee retention tax credit is now available to employers significantly impacted by the crisis and is applied  to offset Social Security payroll taxes; the credit is equal to 50% of qualified wages up to a certain maximum
  • Employers may defer paying the employer portion of Social Security payroll taxes through the end of 2020 and may pay the deferred taxes over a two-year period of time; self-employed individuals are able to do the same
  • Net operating loss rules expanded
  • Deductibility of business interest expanded
  • Provisions relating to specified Small Business Administration (SBA) loans increase the federal government guarantee to 100% and allow small businesses to borrow up to $10 million and defer payments for six months to one year; self-employed individuals, independent contractors, and sole proprietors may qualify for loans

Prior legislative relief provisions

Signed into law roughly two weeks prior to the CARES Act, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) also included relief provisions worth noting:

  • Requirement that health plans cover COVID-19 testing at no cost to the patient
  • Requirement that employers with fewer than 500 employees generally must provide paid sick leave to employees affected by COVID-19 who meet certain criteria, and paid emergency family and medical leave in other circumstances
  • Payroll tax credits allowed for required sick leave as well as family and medical leave paid

There is likely to be a steady stream of guidance forthcoming with details relating to many of these provisions, so stay tuned for more information. We’re here to help and to answer any questions you may have.

26
Feb

The Coronavirus and the Global Economy

As of February 26, 2020, the death toll from COVID-19 — the official name of the coronavirus first reported in Wuhan, China — passed 2,700, while the number of confirmed cases exceeded 80,000. Almost all were in China, most of them in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province. But more than 2,500 cases, including 46 deaths, had been reported in almost 40 other countries. A surge of cases and deaths in South Korea, Italy, and Iran caused new concern that the virus may be difficult to contain.1

Cities under lockdown

By mid-February, at least 150 million people in China were under restrictions affecting when they could leave their homes, and more than 760 million — about 10% of the world’s population — lived in communities under some form of travel restriction.2 Most global airlines cancelled service to and from China, disrupting tourism and business travel.3

The Chinese government enacted restrictions around the time of the Lunar New Year celebration, during which many businesses were closed, lessening the immediate impact. However, as factories and other businesses remained closed after the holiday, the loss of Chinese production and consumer spending began to take a toll on global businesses.4

Lost supply and demand

Many U.S. technology companies have manufacturing operations in China while also selling to Chinese businesses and/or consumers. Companies with substantial exposure to the slowdown in China include big tech brands such as Apple, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Intel, and Qualcomm, as well as many smaller tech businesses.5-6

Vehicle manufacturers throughout the world rely on Chinese-made parts, and many have plants in China. General Motors (which sells more cars in China than in the United States), Ford, Toyota, BMW, Honda, Nissan, Tesla, and Volkswagen all suspended operations in China, while Hyundai and Renault closed plants in South Korea, and Fiat Chrysler closed a plant in Serbia, all due to parts issues.7-9

Global retailers including Apple, Ikea, Levi Strauss, McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks temporarily closed stores in China.10-11

In addition to disruptions in the global supply chain and Chinese consumer market, the tourism industry in the United States, Europe, and other Asian countries may be hard hit by the absence of Chinese tourists. One estimate suggests a loss of almost $6 billion in U.S. airfares and tourist spending.12

Although it is too early to measure the full effect on global business, a private report released on February 21 indicated that U.S. business activity had slowed in February to the lowest level in six years, with the biggest hit to the service sector, where travel and tourism are major components. The report also indicated a sharp drop in Japanese business due to lost tourism and export orders. Exports were down in Germany, but the initial impact on the eurozone was minimal.13

Oil pressure

China is the world’s largest importer of crude oil, and Wuhan is a key center of its oil and gas industry. The prospect of lower demand drove oil prices into bear-market territory — defined as a drop of 20% from a recent high — in early February. Prices rose later in the month but dropped again with news that the virus may be spreading. Natural gas prices have also been hit by the prospect of lower growth in Asia. While lower prices may be good for U.S. consumers, oil-exporting nations, including the United States, will face lower revenues, and energy companies that are already on rocky ground may struggle.14-17

Market reaction

In late January, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 3.7%, due in large part to concerns about the virus, wiping out gains for the year.18 The market bounced back quickly and set new records in February, but weak business news and a rash of cases outside of China sent it plunging, with a loss of almost 8% from February 19 to 25.19-20 This suggests that the market may be volatile for some time and that future direction might depend on the progress of disease control and emerging information on the impact of the virus on U.S. and global businesses.

Global growth outlook

Anything that affects China, the world’s second-largest economy, can have a powerful ripple effect around the globe. An early February report by Moody’s Analytics estimated that every 1 percentage point reduction in China’s real gross domestic product (GDP) will reduce global GDP outside China by 0.4%. The report projected that disruption caused by the virus would cut more than 2 percentage points off China’s GDP growth in the first quarter of 2020 and result in a loss of 0.8% growth for the year. This in turn would cause a loss of about 0.3% in annual global GDP growth outside China and about 0.15% in the United States. Moody’s lowered its projection for 2020 global growth from around 2.8% to 2.5%.21

In a February 16 forum, Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was more optimistic, suggesting that the virus might shave 0.1% to 0.2% off the IMF’s 2020 global growth projection of 3.3%. Georgieva cautioned that there was still a “great deal of uncertainty” and emphasized that the economic damage depends on the length of the disruption. If the disease “is contained rapidly,” she said, “there can be a sharp drop and a very rapid rebound.”22

The immediate concerns are to combat the virus on a human level and normalize business activity, but the outbreak could accelerate the shift of U.S. and European manufacturing away from China, creating a more diversified global supply chain.23-24 The situation remains in flux, so you may want to keep an eye on further developments.

All investments are subject to market volatility and loss of principal. Investing internationally carries additional risks such as differences in financial reporting, currency exchange risk, as well as economic and political risk unique to the specific country. This may result in greater share price volatility. Shares, when sold, may be worth more or less than their original cost.

1) South China Morning Post, February 26, 2020

2) The New York Times, February 18, 2020

3-4, 21) Moody’s Analytics, February 2020

5, 23) The Wall Street Journal, February 18, 2020

6, 10) Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2020

7) Forbes, February 12, 2020

8) Car and Driver, February 4, 2020

9) The Wall Street Journal, February 14, 2020

11-12, 14-15, 18) The Wall Street Journal, February 3, 2020

13) The Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2020

16, 20) The Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2020

17) The Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2020

19) The New York Times, February 20, 2020

22) Bangkok Post, February 17, 2020

24) South China Morning Post, February 18, 2020