How will Covid-19/Coronavirus Affect my Alternative Investment Portfolio? Part 38: November 15th
Updated: Feb 8, 2021
Third wave of U.S. deaths accelerates upwards and surpasses worst of the second wave; Up, up and away: U.S. virus infections soar faster, higher and further out of control than ever before; World round up: Early hints that bulk of Europe may be turning the corner, while Sweden buckles up for a rough ride; Pandemic score table: Which countries are best at controlling the virus?; State roundup: Virus spreads in all 50 states as some hospitals approach tragic tipping-points: "We have no reserves. We have no backup plan. It's a number's game and we are danger-close."; Mixed signals from Georgia’s bellwether economy; Economy gets little reprieve from the weekly pummeling from newly lost jobs, while the threat from resurgent virus grows; Financial cliff update: White house turns over the reins to Congress; Corporate tenants dumping excess space send shivers through the commercial real estate office market; Eli Lilly’s Covid-19 antibody drug gets emergency FDA clearance (but unlikely to be available for vast majority due to inadequate supply); Markets soar on Pfizer’s press release claiming vaccine is "90% effective" against covid-19, but scientists urge caution; Update on my portfolio 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.).
This week there was the usual slew of information on virus spread, economic impact, investment repercussions, as well as some breakthrough news regarding vaccines and treatments.
This article is part of a multi-article series that's been published weekly since the pandemic began, back in March 2020. It started with three introductory articles on the virus and its effect on the economy and on alternative investment classes. 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.
Third Wave of U.S. Deaths Accelerates Upwards and Surpasses Worst of the Second Wave
For the 30th week in a row, the United States battled the coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2, which causes the Covid-19 disease. And as of Saturday morning, the death toll had climbed to 250,030 (versus 242,670 last Saturday morning). Here's a quick summary of what's happened so far:
The first U.S. death wave started in early March. It was overwhelmingly in urban areas (like New York City in the Northeast). It peaked on April 21st and the country fought it down until July 6th.
The second death wave started on July 7th. This ran predominantly through urban areas in the Sun Belt. It peaked on August 1st, before falling until October 8th.
Then the third death wave began on October 9th and is currently tracking upwards. Unlike earlier waves, this has been spread across the entire country and rural areas are being hammered worse than urban.
How did things go this week?
This week, deaths accelerated strongly upwards. And on Thursday, they achieved an unwanted record by surpassing the peak of the Second Wave. So, the Third Wave is now causing more deaths, per day, than occurred on the very worst day of the Second Wave. Unlike the two previous waves, this third one is widely distributed throughout the country, which many experts say will make it much more difficult to contain and to fight. And as we discussed in late October, this has already caused acute shortages of critical drugs and key medical personnel needed to fight the disease and limit deaths. Still, it’s early and anything is possible. So we’ll be watching this very closely to see what happens.
Up, Up and Away: U.S. Virus Infections Soar Faster, Higher and Further Out of Control Than Ever Before
If we're unable to make clear progress and deaths remain high, then the overwhelming consensus of economists is that this would sabotage hopes of a quick, V-shaped recovery. Instead, the recovery would assume a different shape (W-shaped, U-shaped, etc.). This would be slower, involve more long-term damage to both health and economy, and potentially cause problems for some or many consumers, businesses and investments. (See part 14 for more information on the possible "recovery shapes" and their ramifications).
Since this is potentially so important, let's take a look at one of the leading indicators of upcoming deaths: virus infections. Virus infections tend to lead deaths by anywhere from 2 to 8 weeks (depending on how long it takes someone to die and how long it takes their particular location to report the information). These case numbers are not completely reliable due to testing labs' difficulties, in many parts of the country, with getting results back on time. And some states are not reporting all of the positive tests (specifically, the antigen tests). But they can still provide a clue of what might lie ahead with deaths. How did virus infections look, this week?
This chart is a disaster. Infections are accelerating even faster out of control than last week's kamikazee chart. And once again new virus cases shattered all previous records, including those from the initial, dark months when the pandemic began. Unfortunately, none of this was a surprise. As we discussed in early September, many health experts predicted this would be the inevitable result of lax behavior over the Labor Day weekend (September 7). And that itself wasn't a difficult prediction to make, since the exact same thing happened after the lax behavior over the Memorial Day weekend (May 23)… which ended all progress against the first wave and triggered the second. (See "Forgetting History and Doomed to Repeat It: Will Labor Day Launch the Third Wave, like Memorial Day Kicked Off the Second Wave?").
Sadly, so far, they've been right.
Later below, we’ll take a closer look at what happened at the U.S. state level, to better understand what might happen next.
But first, let’s complete our look at the rest of the world for the week.
World Round Up: Early Hints that Bulk of Europe may be Turning the Corner, while Sweden Buckles Up for a Rough Ride
How did other countries do this week?
As we discussed in part six, South Korea uses an aggressive mixture of the Three T's of epidemic control (testing, tracing and treatment). And through most of the epidemic, it has been one of the world leaders in both minimizing deaths (one of the lowest per million) and also minimizing economic damage (their economy is now mostly open and growth is projected to barely shrink this year, while in comparison, the U.S. still has significant closures and is projected to take a -5.9% hit to GDP).
This week, South Korea looked like this:
This was another mixed week for South Korea. For the last several weeks, the country has been battling a third wave, which was triggered by n super-spreader event at a church in Seoul. This week, deaths plateaued and then went up slightly. But they are still lower than they were at the peak of this third wave. So, at this point anyway, the third wave remains under control. The biggest positive for South Korea is that throughout this pandemic, their rates have been extraordinarily low compared to virtually every other country in the world. (See chart below for comparison to other countries.) This has been a major factor allowing them to keep their economy open while suffering far less damage than virtually everyone else. And this week again, the South Korean economy continued to remain predominantly open for business. How did Sweden do this week? We've been watching it very closely over many weeks because the country has pursued an unorthodox lockdown-lite strategy through most of the pandemic. And the hope has been that, if this ultimately worked well, it might provide another workable model for other countries looking to deal with the virus while still protecting the economy.
The country has done some lockdowns (like prohibiting gatherings larger than 50, instructing elderly people to stay home and young people to work remotely, enacting social distancing rules at restaurants, shutting down grade schools, etc.). But it never went into full lockdown mode. Unfortunately, the strategy has clearly not worked out in the short to medium term:
Economically: The lack of control of the virus has caused the economy to take a major pummeling (-5.6% projected) that is virtually as poor as projected for the U.S. (-5.9%). And both countries are 6x+ worse than top performers like South Korea.
Health: The health cost of the strategy has been stratospherically high. Swedish citizens have endured a 6 to 10 times higher death rate than their Scandinavian neighbors with similar demographic advantages. And they have performed 100 to 2000 times worse than top-tier countries like South Korea and Taiwan.
But, there still was hope that Sweden might turn things around in the long run. For the last couple of months, they had brought their death rate down to an extremely low level and kept it there. And if (1) they could maintain that low level, while other countries didn’t, and if (2) science wasn’t able to bring relief anytime soon (with an effective vaccine or other treatment), then Sweden could eventually overtake other countries.
Then, as we discussed last week, Sweden made a bombshell announcement that knocked down the first of those two “if’s.” Authorities stated that the virus was no longer under control, and that they would actually have to start implementing stronger lockdowns in local areas, as well as other new lockdown rules nationwide.
And, the second source of the hope of Sweden’s turn-around, the idea that a successful vaccine/treatment was very far off, also appears unlikely. This week, we had news from multiple companies, reporting success with various medicines to treat the virus. (See later section below). While the medical-breakthrough news may potentially be very good for humanity, it may be the final nail in the coffin of Sweden’s unorthodox model. As a result, we may start looking at Sweden on a less frequent basis going forward.
For now, though, here’s how they did for the week, with deaths:
Sweden’s deaths went up and down, but they are clearly still in their second death wave. And, looking at Sweden’s infections (since these tend to be an advance indicator of upcoming deaths):
If the U.S. infection graph, shown earlier in this article, was disastrous, the Swedish one here is almost apocalyptic. And they appear to be in for a rough ride. Let's hope that the change in strategy and the new lockdowns work, and that the Swedish authorities are able to get things under control sooner, rather than later.
Meanwhile, the other nations in Europe have been hit by a brutal second wave of deaths. Initially, the continent was bruised badly by the first wave, but used aggressive lockdowns to drive infections and deaths to extremely low levels. So then, countries loosened travel restrictions and reopened schools (despite warnings from many health experts). And, as colder weather hit, the death toll has skyrocketed. Accordingly, authorities have been forced to enact a variety of new lockdowns (which we've described in detail in previous weeks).
First, let’s look at Spain. The country is a popular travel destination and was one of the first to get hit by the second wave. And, in the last two months, they've been battling an increasingly bad situation. But then last week, they plateaued, which gave hope that they could be close to getting control of things. How did they do this week?
This week, the country’s death numbers plateaued and then had a significant drop. And this is Spain’s most promising-looking graph in months. This could be a sign that the delayed effect of locking down is finally kicking in, and they are getting control of their second wave. On the other hand, the country’s data has also been very noisy in this third wave. And they've seen lots of short-lived progress, cancelled out by more severe regression, stepping forward only to fall back by two steps the next week. So, we’ll watch them again, next week, to see if this positive downward trend continues. How did some of their neighbors in Europe do? Here's the U.K., France, the Netherlands and Belgium.
The Netherlands’ graph looks remarkably similar to Spain’s, and may have hit a top. We'll see if they continue this, next week. Belgium plateaued, and if they can sustain this, it would be an early sign of a top. The United Kingdom and France didn't do as well, and still had rising infections. At the same time, the silver lining for them is that, at the end of the week, their numbers seemed to taper off at a slower rate than previous weeks. Again, the key for them will be sustaining and improving on this.
So we’ll continue to monitor them and we’ll see how they're doing, next week.
Pandemic Score Table: Which Countries are Best at Controlling the Virus?
Meanwhile, which countries have done the best job through the entire pandemic of controlling the virus? To see, we need to look at deaths per million. Unlike raw deaths, this puts countries of different sizes on an equal playing field. Here are the numbers, this week, with worst death numbers at the top:
The results look very similar to last week’s, with three tiers of countries.
The worst tier countries: the United States, Brazil, and the poorest performers in Europe, who have stratospheric death rates ranging from 610 to 871 per million.
The middle tier countries: the better performers in Europe (Germany, Scandinavian countries other than Sweden) and an assortment of rich and poor countries, like Australia and India. These are doing approximately 8x-10x better than the worst tier, with death rates between about 54-147 deaths per million.
The top-tier countries: Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China. All have developed much more sophisticated virus control systems than the West, as a result of having to deal with previous infections from different virus epidemics and pandemics, over the last couple of decades. And they are doing approximately 41x-2,000x better than the worst tier, with death rates between 0.29 - 14.86 deaths per million.
State Roundup: Virus spreads in all 50 states as some hospitals approach tragic tipping-points: "We have no reserves. We have no backup plan. It's a number's game and we are danger-close."
For the last several months, we've watched individual U.S. states to get insights on what might happen next at the national level. And here's what we saw:
Second Wave: After the Memorial Day weekend (in May), we saw the second wave of infections (and eventually deaths) start in the Sunbelt and then spread to the Midwest and Northeast. And the people getting infected were significantly younger than the first wave (many of whom were going to parties and bars). In response, many states put in place virus control measures, including reinstatements of key portions of lockdowns and rules mandating the wearing of masks (in more than 50% of states). And the Sunbelt states made huge progress and fought the wave back down.
Third Wave: Then after the Labor Day weekend (in September) the U.S. also reopened schools and cooler weather began in the north. Almost immediately, a third wave began. While this started in just the Midwest and Northeast, it then spread across every major area of the country. And while earlier waves hit mostly urban areas, this new wave is being led by rural places Also, as discussed in a later section, most of the spread is now being driven by small, casual gatherings like dinner parties, carpools and game nights from lockdown weary (or resistant) citizens. Also, since the wave is spreading much wider spread than before, there are now chronic shortages of 29 of the 40 most crucial drugs needed to treat Covid-19 as well as crucially needed medical personnel in many areas.
What happened this week?
This week, one statistic summarizes the breadth of the escalating state situation better than any other. As of Tuesday: every single state had a higher seven-day average of new infections than in the previous week. Multiple states also set highs for new viral cases, including Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. And sadly, multiple states also set daily death toll records, including Missouri, Wisconsin, Alaska, Wyoming and North Dakota. The escalating situation has prompted multiple states to issue new lockdowns. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walts issued an executive order that requires restaurants and bars to close early and limit capacity. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan reduced bar and restaurant capacity from 75% to 50%, and said state government employees who can do so will be required to work remotely. Additionally, nonessential travel to other states was further restricted (now totaling 35 states, with a new focus on the Midwest). And 11 California counties also enacted more restrictive lockdowns, as well.
So let’s dive down into the state data. And, let’s take a look at North Dakota first.
This week, both new infections and new deaths rose, compared to the previous week. And both set daily high records for the entire pandemic. Perhaps one silver lining is that deaths did at least drop a bit at the end of the week. However, the data is noisy, and this has happened before, only to be followed by acceleration the following week. So, we’ll see if this is truly a new trend or not.
As we discussed in previous weeks, North Dakota currently has one of the highest per capita death rates in the world. And the state’s general refusal to wear masks drew a scathing rebuke from the White House coronavirus task force’s Dr. Deborah Birx, two weeks ago:
“Over the last 24 hours, as we were here, and we were in your grocery stores and in your restaurants and frankly, even in your hotels, this is the least use of masks that we have seen in retail establishments of any place we have been.”
The situation has caused health officials to make louder and louder recommendations for a statewide mandatory mask rule. But Governor Doug Burgum has dug in and repeatedly refused to do so, saying, “It’s not a job for government.” And he claimed citizens would automatically do what was necessary to control the pandemic if simply empowered to take their own “personal responsibility.”
But, so far that doesn’t seem to be happening. Since October 1, coronavirus hospitalizations have tripled, with about a quarter of those staying in intensive care units. And so few were surprised when the Governor announced, this week, that:
"Hospital capacity is currently at 100% …[and] state hospitals are under enormous pressure."
At the same news conference, Gov. Burnham announced that due to the chronic medical worker shortage, the state was looking to hire additional contract nurses from out of state. And it is also pausing elective surgeries at many locations and implementing surge plans. Even more ominously, the state has been forced to invoke CDC “crisis rules” to try to keep up staffing. So healthcare workers who are infected with the disease but not showing symptoms will no longer be quarantined, but will remain on duty and continue to treat patients. And, those who are suspected of being infected, but have not yet gotten back test results, will also do the same.
How about South Dakota?
Infections this week climbed to a record high in South Dakota as well, and also set multiple daily records. Deaths also climbed to a record high this week, before falling back sharply at the end. So perhaps that fall is a sign of improvement, although it also could just be noise in the data.
How about Wisconsin?
This is about as bad as a graph can get with escalating cases and deaths. Both numbers set record weekly highs and multiple daily highs. This week, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers encouraged citizens to stay at home, saying:
“Wisconsin, this is serious.The crisis is urgent. It’s not safe to go out, it’s not safe to have others over — it’s just not safe. And it might not be safe for a while yet. So please, cancel the happy hours, dinner parties, sleepovers and play dates at your home. And if a friend or family member invites you over, offer to hang out virtually instead.”
(See section below on how the third wave is different than previous waves and is now being driven by casual get-togethers.)
But Governor Evers was unable to make the stay-at-home order mandatory, due to being "hamstrung" by legal decisions after attempting similar things in the recent past. In May, his Department of Health implemented a stay-at-home order to reduce travel, close some businesses and limit services at others (similar to that enacted in many other states). This was sued by the opposite political party and escalated to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where that party holds a majority. And as a result, the stay-at-home order was rescinded.
Then last Friday, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruled that an October 6 order limiting the size of some indoor public gatherings was "invalid and unenforceable." Additionally, Evers had passed a mandatory mask rule through November 21, which was also challenged and is now in review by that same Supreme Court. Many are expecting it to also be invalidated.
This Thursday, the University of Wisconsin health system, which runs seven hospitals in the state, announced:
We are short of staff at all times, either because they have Covid or they have some other illness and we need to rule out Covid before we bring them back to work
[And we are] unable to shift doctors and nurses around to areas where there may be a greater need.
We’re finding that all of our hospitals are reaching their limit in capacity.”
And they warned that the dangers of hospital overload are not limited just to patients who contract the virus. The staffing shortages affect care provided to others as well:
“[The shortage effects] taking care of those who still have illnesses that haven’t gone away, whether it be cancer, traumas or other types of diseases.
The Wisconsin State Department of Health Services’ chief medical officer, Ryan Westergaard, was more blunt and said:
"We're very close to a tipping point. This could get much worse quickly and that tipping point is when we stop being able to save everyone who gets severely ill.... A lot of people in the population don't perceive themselves to be at high risk of severe COVID-19, but we are truly all at risk if we have hospitals and health systems that aren't able to be there for us when we need them."
Meanwhile how is Missouri doing?
New infections escalated rapidly in Missouri, this week. And unfortunately, that set new pandemic-highs for the week, as well as multiple daily records. Deaths went down and then back up, and essentially plateaued.
On Tuesday, multiple hospitals in central Missouri reported they are beyond capacity and are transferring patients to other areas. But even that is getting more challenging. The Chief Medical Officer at Boone Hospital Center, Dr. Robin Blunt, said:
"We’ve set a new record every day for the past 12 or 14 days. We are at capacity with our ICU, [for] bed reasons or staff reasons. [And] we can rarely find anything close and we are looking to St. Louis and Kansas City. Frequently [we] have to look at multiple places in those areas until we can find someone to take a patient."
Mary Becker, VP of the Missouri Hospital Association, said the problem is that:
“There’s really not enough staffing to go around right now. Nurses and other care givers for this patient population are really in short supply.”
Meanwhile, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has repeatedly said that he will not implement a statewide mask mandate. Instead, he says, local officials are the best ones to make those decisions and Missourians should be trusted to control the pandemic by "taking personal responsibility."
But that strategy has come under increasingly intense criticism from health officials and analysts as ineffective. And this week, the head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, Dr. Alex Garza, said at a press conference (where he fought back tears):
"Our health care heroes have fought valiantly day after day. [But] we have no reserves. We have no back up that we can suddenly muster to save the day. If we stay the path we are on, even just two more weeks, we will not have the staff we need to care for patients. It’s a numbers game. We are danger-close.
The best time to act was yesterday, but a good time to act is now. The statewide mask mandate is needed to save lives across the state.
We will be judged on the things that we do and we don't do after this is over."
Several voices also pointed out that local leaders can’t be entrusted to make the best decisions when they’re not accountable for the situation; after going wrong, they can offload their problems to others. For example, the city of St. Louis has a mask ordinance that helped it fight back the second wave. And yet, 50% of its Covid-19 beds are now being taken by out-of-county patients from rural areas without any such ordinance (like central Missouri, mentioned above).
Meanwhile how is Minnesota doing?
Minnesota also suffered escalating infections and deaths. And they also set unwelcome new daily and weekly records-highs for the entire pandemic on both.
Michael T. Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said:
“It scares the hell out of me. … This is like one huge coronavirus forest fire, and I don’t think it’s going to spare much human wood out there unless we change our behavior.”
He also predicted that if the U.S. doesn’t change its current strategy, it’s on course to soon be logging more than 200,000 new cases each day.
Mixed Signals from Georgia’s Bellwether Economy:
One of the most important questions for investments (as well as for the health of the country) is "what will the shape and speed of the recovery be?" If it's V-shaped and quick, then many investments will be just fine. On the other hand, if it's one of the other shapes (U-shaped, swoosh, etc.), then some or many investments could run into problems. (See part 14 for more information on the possible "recovery shapes" and their ramifications).
To monitor the evolving situation, we've been watching Georgia very closely. It was one of the first states to reopen. So we expected this to make it a useful early indicator of what could be in store for some other parts of the nation. Back on April 24, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp reopened nail salons, hairdressers, bowling alleys and gyms (as long as they followed state protocols). Then, three days later, restaurants and theaters were also allowed to reopen. So they've effectively been open for about 6 months.
How are they doing? Since there's no official government or state data on this, we've previously looked at Placer.ai. This is a service which tracks mobile phone usage to different types of businesses to measure foot traffic. And we will look at Georgia's four primary Covid-19 sensitive industries: restaurants, retail, fitness, and hotels.
So in the category of restaurants, let's take a look at Applebee’s. This is a fast-casual restaurant and would be expected to do better in a recession, versus a higher-priced fine dining restaurant. How is it doing?
Wow, this is the best week Applebee’s had since the pandemic started. They actually experienced +2% footfall versus a year ago. On the other hand, this is so unexpected from what was happening the last couple weeks, that it could also end up being statistical noise and a fluke. So we’ll watch them next week and see if this is something sustainable or not.
For retail, let’s look at Kohl’s, which is a value retailer that might be expected to do better in a recession than a more upscale retailer.
Ouch, that is -20% footfall versus last year at the same time. And since Kohl’s has high fixed costs and lower margins, that’s almost certainly unprofitable.
For fitness, let’s look at Anytime Fitness. This is a nontraditional fitness club where members have a key to the facility. So customers can visit anytime and minimize their contact with others. And this should be an advantage for them over more traditional chains during a pandemic.