How will Covid-19/Coronavirus Affect my Alternative Investment Portfolio? Part 11: May 10th
Updated: Feb 8
U.S. continues slow progress against virus, but shows disturbing signs of stalling; More states exit lockdown, including 11 that fail minimum White House guidelines; 78% of Americans uncomfortable eating at restaurants and majority don't want other businesses open yet either; U.S. takes another economic punch with millions more laid off; Watchdog says SBA bungled stimulus rules, leaving hundreds of thousands of desperate small companies out to dry; France discovers Coronavirus was already present in December 2019; Disneyland Shanghai will reopen Monday after selling out tickets in minutes; Regeneron antibody treatment for Covid 19 may be available in fall, plus many other firms working on similar time frames; Pfizer may have vaccine ready for use in high risk groups by fall; Update on my personal investing strategy
(Usual disclaimer: I'm just an investor expressing my personal opinion and not a registered financial advisor, attorney or accountant. Consult your own financial professionals before making any financial decisions. Code of Ethics: I/we do not accept any money from any sponsor or platform for anything, including postings, reviews, referring investors, affiliate leads or advertising. Nor do we negotiate special terms for ourselves in the club above what we negotiate for the benefit of members.).
As usual, many things that affect investors happened this week.
By the way, this is one article in a multi-part series that has been published weekly since the pandemic began back in March 2020. The series started with three introductory articles on the virus, effect on the economy and alternative investment classes. And then it moved on to weekly updates on the latest and greatest developments (along with weekly updates on my evolving personal portfolio strategy). You can see the links to every article in the series here.
U.S. continues slow progress against virus, but shows disturbing signs of stalling
The nation continued its fight against the virus. As of yesterday, 79,645 people had been killed by Covid-19 (versus 65,605 last week). For the 5th week in a row, the disease was the leading cause of death in the country (versus heart disease at 1,774/day and cancer at 1,641/day). On the plus side, the U.S. death doubling rate (the time it takes for deaths to double) continued to drop further this week. It fell to 4 weeks (28 days) from 3 weeks (21 days) last week. It may help that the majority of U.S. cases are in New York City, which has continued its lockdown, while other states have begun loosening up on restrictive control measures.
On the other hand, a disturbing trend continued from last week with daily deaths. After initial strides were made, bending the curve significantly, three weeks ago, charts show U.S. progress now is stalling. This week, the country did not bend the curve very much and may be plateauing.
In comparison, other countries have had relatively more success in continuing to beat down their curves.
Germany's death doubling rate has dropped to once every 5 weeks (35 days) versus our 4 weeks. Italy and Spain's death doubling rates have dropped even further down to once every 3 months (about 90 days). And South Korea continues to lead the majority of the world at once every 5 months (about 150 days). South Korea has used an aggressive mixture of the Three T's (testing, tracing and treatment) to exit lockdown and still beat down the curve. This week, it made strong additional progress. They continue to lead the world in simultaneously protecting public health and minimizing the economic damage.
Sweden has opted for a lockdown-lite policy. So if they're successful, it would be great news for countries like the U.S. that are looking to exit lockdown without having to rely on the more severe measures being used by South Korea and China. Unfortunately, this week brought more mixed results. After beating back a dispiriting second wave, Sweden appeared to stabilize early in the week. But then later in the week, cases jerked ominously upward.
However, the country of Sweden is relatively small, which makes their data noisy. We'll see how they continue to do next week.
More states exit lockdown, including 11 that fail minimum White House Guidelines
Two weeks of dropping documented cases* or
Two weeks of dropping percentages of positive tests* *(While at least maintaining the number of tests performed).
Unfortunately, ten of the reopened states (almost 50%) currently don't meet that threshold.
These states are Maine, Illinois, Tennessee, Mississippi, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Utah and Idaho. A state that opens too early risks creating a second wave, which could force a second shutdown. This might not only cause a public health emergency, but runs the risk of exacerbating the economic damage. That's because many businesses operate with thin profit margins and don't have the ability to easily turn themselves on and off. There are already signs that even with a single shutdown, a significant number of businesses may be gone permanently. Many economists believe that each additional shutdown would cause even more businesses to go permanently bankrupt. Additionally, if the general public sees that their health is in danger, they're unlikely to visit the restaurants, gyms and other high traffic businesses that need them. This could cause additional closures. If enough of closures occur then a quick V-shaped recovery would be extremely unlikely. Some health experts have also argued that the White House guidelines are too lenient. As an example, Florida fully meets the guidelines and opened restaurants this last Monday. However, it actually has not had much success bending it's virus death curve. This week, not only did it fail to reduce it, but deaths actually increased:
Despite this, Florida will be further relaxing restrictions on this Monday by reopening shops, barbershops and salons in most counties (other than the hardest hit counties in and around Miami). Meanwhile, New York has taken the opposite tactic. Gov. Andrew Cuomo says that restrictions will remain in place on every county in the state until they meet a list of 7 strict requirements:
A 14-day decline in hospitalizations, or fewer than 15 per day.
A 14-day decline in virus-related hospital deaths, or fewer than five per day.
A steady rate of new hospitalizations below 2 per 100,000 residents per day.
A hospital-bed vacancy rate of at least 30 percent.
An availability rate for intensive care unit beds of at least 30 percent.
At least 30 virus tests per 1,000 residents conducted per month.
At least 30 working contact tracers per 100,000 residents.
To date, they've also had considerable success bending the death curve
78% of Americans uncomfortable eating at a restaurant, and majority don't want other businesses opening yet either
Opening up post-lockdown is a tricky thing. On one hand, if a state opens too late, many businesses will suffer unnecessary economic damage. And if that goes on for too long, the damage may be permanent and those businesses may never reopen. On the other hand, if a state opens too early, the public may not feel safe enough to visit the now-open businesses. And unfortunately, many businesses can't operate well with only a fraction of their former clientele. Most have thin profit margins and fixed costs, which they have to pay no matter how many customers they do or don't have. So a premature opening could also cause unnecessary permanent closures. This means the opinion of the general public is an important factor in how successful businesses will be when states reopen. And on Tuesday, the University of Maryland released a poll on this topic. If accurate, businesses in states that are opening now may be in for a tough time. The poll found that 78% of Americans are uncomfortable eating out at a restaurant. And 67% are uncomfortable about shopping at a retail clothing store, and 56% about making an in-person grocery trip. They also found that the results were pretty much the same regardless of whether the person lived in a state with loose or tight restrictions.
Additionally, the majority of Americans say that their state shouldn't be opening up any type of business right now. For the minority who do want business opened, 41% were okay with golf courses. Only 26% want to see dine-in restaurants open and a scant 18% say movie theaters should become available.
Another poll by the Economist/You.Gov found that about 48% Americans feel it's not safe for the national economy to fully reopen for at least "several months". And on that, 20% were unsure. Only 15% felt it would be safe to open now or in the next two weeks.
U.S. takes another economic punch with millions more laid off
For the last seven weeks, "Freaky Friday" has been nothing compared to "Throbbing-Headache Thursday". That's because on every Thursday, the Labor Department has been putting out its new report of weekly jobless claims. And each painful week, millions of additional people have been laid off. This week was sadly no different. Another 3.17 million people lost their jobs, bringing the seven-week total to a staggering 33.5 million.
Bloomberg economists didn't make a new estimate on the effective unemployment rate. But last week, (at only 30 million jobs lost) they had estimated 22% unemployment. That was more than twice as bad as the worst of the Great Recession (10% in 2009), and only a few percentage points away from the worst of the Great Depression (24.9% in 1933). And unfortunately, no one is expecting this to be the last bad jobs report. On the plus side, the number of newly unemployed each week continues to go down from the peak several weeks ago. Some had been hoping that by now it would start dropping faster, but that has not happened yet. Let's hope next week we see a larger drop and a better trend.
Non-farm payrolls suggest damage more widespread, and an astounding One Quarter of Americans out of a job
Some have been hoping that the economic damage of the shutdowns have been contained to a few high profile sectors (like restaurants, retail, travel and oil). If so, and virus control measures can be lifted relatively quickly, then a fast V-shaped recovery would be much more likely. But, in last week's update, we discussed how a survey from the Economic Policy Institute suggested the damage is actually much more widespread. This could complicate the reopening and cause it to take longer and be more difficult. On Friday, another unemployment report (non-farm payrolls) weighed in with more information. Unlike the jobless claims report (mentioned above), this report breaks out job losses by industry. So this is really helpful to understand this. As expected, the report showed that leisure and hospitality were devastated with 7.7 million terminated positions. And retail was also hammered, losing 2.1 million jobs. But even sectors like education and healthcare suffered losses of 2.5 million. Manufacturing lost an additional 1.3 million positions. And state and local governments (which we discussed last week) also lost 980,000. And since this report ran only through the middle of April, the numbers are definitely worse today than they look in the chart below:
Women and minorities have been hit harder than other groups. Women suffered from unemployment at about 2.5 percentage points higher than men. Black and African-Americans were about 3.7 percentage points higher than the average and Hispanics and Latinos were about 6.9 percentage points higher. This non-farm payroll report is not perfect. It comes out only once a week and, again, this report stops in mid-April. So it excludes several weeks worth of severe unemployment that we already know happened. Even so, it still reported a brutal 14.6% "headline" unemployment rate. But, this unemployment rate doesn't show the complete picture, because it doesn't count people as unemployed unless they're looking for work. In normal times, that makes sense, because they don't want to count people who have permanently given up looking (i.e. retired) as unemployed. But these aren't normal times. During the shutdown, all businesses were forced closed and jobs were simply not available. So lots of people were not looking for jobs, but could not look; they were not at all retired or giving up. This artificially lowered the count. Fortunately, the report gives us another number which includes those people. This is called the U6 Rate or the "underemployment rate". And including them brings the unemployment rate up to a mind-numbing 22.8%. The Labor Department also noticed that many unemployed workers didn't classify themselves properly. Even though they were furloughed, they reported themselves as "employed but absent from work". The department said if they corrected for this, the unadjusted unemployment rate would have been another 5 percentage points higher. So if you take all this together, it suggests that more than one quarter of all Americans were unemployed. This is an astounding number. And worse, as mentioned above, this was back in mid-April. Combined with the latest jobless reports, it suggests we're probably way above Great Depression levels of unemployment right now. We'll see the fuller extent of the damage, when the report comes again out next month. After the report came out, San Francisco Federal Reserve President Mary Daly expressed skepticism for a V-shaped recovery. She said, "No one who I talk to is looking at a V-shaped recovery -- they really think this will be gradual and it will take time to build confidence back up for both workers and consumers." And Bloomberg economists lowered their Q2 projections for real GDP to an enormous 40% contraction. In comparison, Goldman Sachs had projected "only" a -29% drop just a month and a half ago.
Watchdog says SBA bungled stimulus rules, leaving hundreds of thousands of desperate small companies out to dry
In late March, the U.S. government passed a huge stimulus package of $2.2 trillion to offset the economic pain of the lockdowns. A large part of that ($660 billion) was allocated for the small businesses hit hardest by the shutdowns (like restaurants, shops and salons). The idea was to give them free money to tide them through the shutdown so they could quickly reopen afterwards. This program was called the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and was designed to facilitate a V-shaped recovery. However, in update #7 we talked about how many companies couldn't get the aid to which they were entitled, due to a string of problems caused by bureaucracy, snafus and questionable decisions by the Small Business Administration, the Treasury Department and others. This week, a government watchdog for the Small Business Administration reported that the problems go even deeper. One of the primary rules set by the SBA is that any businesses who wants free money must agree to spend no more than 25% maximum on non-payroll expenses. This was intended to force them to spend up to 75% on payroll, and encourage them to preserve jobs. But, SBA Inspector General Hannibal Ware pointed out that Congress had never specified a 25% limit (nor any limit at all). And that lack of limit caused severe unintended side effects, altered the intent of the law and made the program inaccessible to many hard-hit companies. According to the Wall Street Journal, hundreds of thousands of small businesses in many of the hardest hit urban areas (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago) have no choice but to spend much more than 25% of revenue on rent. So this requirement became a dealbreaker, they could not get aid, and large numbers of them are struggling or have already gone bankrupt. Glenn Hubbard is dean emeritus at Columbia Business School and is one of the people who worked closely with Congress and the current administration to develop the plan. And he was even more blunt. "The cap is a mistake. Treasury and the SBA were not really fulfilling the intent of the original legislation. It really reflects the lack of understanding about how small businesses’ expenses work.” Small business advocacy groups are lobbying hard for the requirement to be removed or at least changed. So far, however, there's been no indication from the SBA or Treasury that it will be.
France discovers Coronavirus was already present in December 2019
Most people believe that the virus originated in Wuhan, China, in late November or early December. And then in January, it spread to Europe (via Italy and Spain), the U.S. and the rest of the world. But in Update #4, we talked about how the Italian doctor who first warned policymakers about hospital overload (Dr. Giuseppe Remuzzi) reported something very strange. He spoke to many doctors in northern Italy and found that they had seen symptoms of Covid-19 in patients as early as November. If the virus was really there, it throws into question our current understanding of the timeline and how the virus spread. This week, France unearthed another clue in the story. A man had been hospitalized at the end of December for Covid-like symptoms and his respiratory samples were still on file. So scientists tested them. And to their surprise ,they found out that he had the virus. Prior to this time, France had believed that the first Covid-19 case in the country occurred when a specific, known individual brought it back from a trip to Wuhan, China at the end of January. Even more intriguing, French virologists released a report last month where they studied the main strains of the virus that have been circulating in the country. Surprisingly, many of them don't match the signature of the strain from the patient who returned from Wuhan, nor that of those who brought it back from Italy. They hypothesized that most likely the virus had already been in circulation and spreading undetected in France for some time before that.
DisneyLand Shanghai will reopen Monday after selling out tickets in minutes
Back on January 25, the pandemic was spreading out of Wuhan, China to the country's business capital of Shanghai (about 520 miles west). So Disney closed Shanghai Disneyland. And as the disease spread across the globe, it later closed all of its parks around the world. Since then, China has implemented an extraordinarily strict regime of the Three T's (testing, tracing and treatment). On March 24, Shanghai exited lockdown and entered a time of reduced restrictions (level 2). These have been successful and the city announced further reductions (level 3) starting Saturday. So with the easing of restrictions, Disney announced they would be reopening the park. Like most of China is already doing, Disneyland will restrict access exclusively to those who have a "green" code on their contact tracing app (people who have not come in close contact with a person who's infected). Guests will also have to pass a temperature check to get in and wear facemasks at all times (other than eating). Disney will allow in only one third of the 80,000 guest capacity, and will ensure that social distancing will be observed in all lines, rides and restaurants. Hand sanitizer will be widely deployed and cleaning measures will be stepped up. Additionally, crowd-oriented features like children's play areas and theater shows will be unavailable.
Despite the significant restrictions, or maybe in part thanks to them, the public was eager to take advantage. Tickets sold out within minutes of the announcement online. At this point, Disney says it's unsure when it will be able to open its other parks. But, the next one may be Disneyland Tokyo when Japan is expected to lower its restrictions at the end of May.
Regeneron Antibody Treatment for Covid-19 may be available in fall, and many other firms working on similar time frames.
As we talked about in Part 9, many immunologists (as well as the former head of the FDA) believe that the first major medical breakthrough in controlling the disease will come from antibody treatments. And that we may see something as early as this fall. And along those lines, Regeneron announced that it's accelerated the timetable for its experimental anti-body treatment, and that it could be available as early as this fall, as well. The drug is a cocktail of two synthetically manufactured protein antibodies that prime the human immune system to attack the virus. Human trials are scheduled for June and, simultaneously, the firm is also ramping up manufacturing. So they plan to have a couple hundred thousand doses created by the end of summer, aiming for a fall delivery, if all goes well. And there are lots of other companies trying their own spin on things. AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly (teaming up with AbCellera and China's Junshi Biosciences) and Korea's Celltrion are all anticipating human clinical trials this summer. A veteran immunologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, James Crowe, says "The odds are very high this will work, especially when you have multiple programs and multiple manufacturers.” The former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Scott Gottlieb, says, "If I had to place one bet on a drug that could be available by the summer and could have activity and could have a profile that I think could change the contours of the infection, it would be the antibody approaches."
Pfizer may have vaccine ready for use in high risk groups by the fall
Health experts say that a vaccine typically takes 12 to 18 months to develop (if not longer). However, as the death toll and economic costs have mounted, many companies have been able to justify using methods to accelerate the process that would have been considered too expensive or financially risky in the past. Pfizer (along with German partner BioNTech) announced on Tuesday that they've begun human testing of an RNA vaccine at the University of Maryland and New York University. And they will be using an unusual trial design where they will test four versions of the vaccine in parallel (rather than one at a time). Kathrin Jansen, head of vaccine research at Pfizer, says that if successful, late stage trials start in the summer. And the goal is to have a vaccine ready to use in high-risk groups by this fall. As we talked about in Part 10, University of Oxford in the United Kingdom is also aiming for a release around that time (September) if testing is successful. Additionally, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) -- a health coalition that's funding nine different vaccine projects is also aiming to have a vaccine developed in late 2020.
Update on my personal investing strategy
It's been 2 months since I laid out my initial Covid-19 investment strategy. Since then, we've learned a lot (which I’ve covered in the last 8 weekly updates). So it's time for an update. In Part 2, we talked about the 5 possible economic scenarios that disruption from the virus could cause:
Saved by the bell: Very short: 0 to 1 month
Shorter: 1 to 2 Months
Longer: 2 to 6 months
Very long: 6 to 12 months.
Covid-19 forever (length: indefinite)
And in part 3, we talked about what would happen to different alternative investing asset classes under each scenario. And I also laid out my own personal investment strategy. So what's changed and what hasn't? Back then, I believed we would be in for scenario #3: "Longer": 2 to 6 months. And I thought that we would have at least one negative quarter of GDP growth (and probably 2 which would qualify for a technical recession). Since then, scenario #1 (0 to 1 month) and scenario #2 (1 to 2 months) turned out to be way too optimistic. So these have gone out the window. That leaves us today with #3-#5. As of today, all of these are still on the table. Some say we're in for a quick, V-shaped recovery, which would see recovery in the next couple of months. They point out that unlike past recessions, this one wasn't caused by trouble in the actual economy, but by us deliberately putting everything on "pause". And the government has offered unprecedented stimulus measures to support businesses and people. So once the economy is opened back up, they expect everything will roar back to life and things will be quickly back to the way they were. I wish I could share their optimism. As we've discussed the last several weeks, many people and companies have been left behind by holes in the stimulus package caused by bungles, snafus, and unintended consequences. Also, polls show that large portions of the general public feel it's unsafe to visit restaurants, stores and other businesses. I personally can't see how a V-shaped recovery can happen in these circumstances. As we discussed in part 1, several X factors relating to the virus could radically change the outcome. Now, 2 months later we have a lot more results on those. And, so far the results have been mixed. On one hand, the repurposed drugs (hydroxychloroquine etc.) have been very disappointing. There were so many that showed promise in early trials and then either collapsed or under-performed when hit with scientifically sound, large double-blind studies. The testing continues, so the story on this isn't over. But, many thought that by now we would have a game changer. And that hasn't happened. And so far, warmer weather has not caused to the virus to disappear. On the other hand, I feel that progress on antibody treatments and a vaccine have been much better than expected. So many companies are throwing unprecedented resources at the problem, and also reporting faster than expected progress. So I personally feel it's likely that we'll have an antibody treatment at some point in the fall or winter. And I also think we'll likely have a vaccine by the winter. If either of these become widely available, it will be a true game changer. It will allow people to feel safe again, allow many businesses to fully reopen, and mark the end of the current phase of the virus story. But even if I'm right, we still have several months before we get there. And in the short term, I feel things are much more dicey. The way to minimize the economic damage has already been proven by countries like South Korea. Invest heavily in the an aggressive rollout of the 3T's of pandemic control (testing, tracing and treatment). And then the payoff is that the country can open up the economy faster and without falling back into a health disaster. But so far the U.S. as a whole isn't doing that. We haven't built up testing enough, nor have we implemented effective contact tracing. So I think we're engaging in a very high-risk strategy and unfortunately our chances of getting hit by a second virus wave are high. If that happens and gets out of control, states will be forced to close back up again. Many businesses won't be able to handle getting jerked around and will permanently close. This will also make a quick recovery even more unlikely. I'd like to be wrong about this. We'll see how it plays out and we should know the answers in the next 2 to 4 weeks. In the meantime, I think we're going to see a lot of economic damage between now and the fall/winter (when the medical treatments hopefully become available). So how does this affect my investing? Back in part 3, I laid out my own personal investment strategy. So far, that hasn't changed:
A) Invest in assets that are coronavirus resistant (and uncorrelated with the business cycle). That includes:
Music royalties (which can actually do better in lockdowns due to increased streaming).
Life settlements (which actually perform better when people are dying faster and in any event isn't directly tied to the business cycle)
Litigation finance (which performs based on winning or losing cases and also isn't directly tied to the business cycle).
B) Continue to hold cash and be patient for distressed opportunities. The worse the economic damage, the more chance there will be for once-in-a-generation or once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. So far, these buying opportunities haven't surfaced in most private markets because sellers are holding out. Rather than sell at a lower price, they are hoping for a V-shaped recovery to bail them out. I'd be very happy if these sellers end up being right, and would be delighted to pay them full, pre-covid-19 prices in a few months after a full recovery. I also think that’s highly unlikely. I think instead that many of them will be forced to capitulate and lower prices. And the longer the economic damage extends, the lower the prices will get. So I feel patience is the key here. And I'm also investing in sponsors with distressed opportunity funds who have a history of successfully exercising that kind of patience. C) Continue to closely monitor for potential game-changers. For example, Congress and the President could pass another round of stimulus. If this provides substantially more economic support from now until fall/winter, that could be huge and make my projections too bearish. Or a medical breakthrough could also come to the rescue. So I'll continue to do my weekly updates. And if things change, I'll be changing my outlook as well as my strategy.
How will Covid-19/Coronavirus Affect my Alternative Investment Portfolio? Part 12: May 16th
US regains its footing and breaks out of plateau; Georgia throws re-opening party. But did anybody really come?; Unemployment stuck in bad version of "Groundhog's Day" while millions unable to collect needed benefits; Retail sales crash through the floor and into the basement; Paycheck Protection Program shoots small businesses it's supposed to help in the foot (again);UK announces long-awaited accurate antibody test;UK blazes forward on contact tracing app; Apple and Google criticized for mega-buggy "contact tracing lite"; A video you don't want to watch if you ever want to enjoy a buffet again; How to catch Covid-19 without even trying: why the 6 foot rule probably won't protect you indoors; No coughing or sneezing required: mere human speech can spread virus carrying particles for up to 8 minutes; Kids are not immune: covid 19 causing potentially fatal blood disorder in children; Secretive "Warp Speed" project aims to deliver 100 million doses of covid-19 vaccine by November; Big Tobacco announces radical vaccine strategy ready for human trials in June. Click here to view part 12.