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How will Covid-19/Coronavirus Affect my Alternative Investment Portfolio? Part 42: December 12th

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

Third death wave continues to run amok as U.S. shatters grisly first wave record; Crystal ball: Infections climb as mobile data shows record numbers of Americans spent Thanksgiving away from home; World round up: South Korea stumbles, Sweden struggles, and rest of Europe continues to turn the corner; State Review: “We have forgotten who we are". Third virus wave continues to batter beleaguered U.S. hospitals; Georgia’s bellwether economic recovery: revisited in 1 week; Economy pummeled by surging wave of new unemployment; Financial cliff: Progress continues despite distractions and political shenanigans; "The tidal wave is coming": 12 million renters will owe staggering average of $5850 in back rent and utilities by end of year; Dr. Fauchi warns of "Dark January" from holiday one-two punch; Food banks face their own “food cliff”; Single-family rentals in suburbs boosted by mass exodus out of urban centers; FDA grants Emergency Use Authorization to first Covid-19 vaccine in the U.S.;U.S. hopes of summer 2021 vaccination delivery relies on successful testing of two un-tried vaccines and higher compliance from a skeptical public; Sanofi-GlaxoSmithKline vaccine flunks out of phase 3 human trials; Genius or desperation? AstraZeneca will try to supercharge its disappointing Covid-19 Vaccine by testing it with Russia’s controversial Sputnik V; The 6-foot rule continues to crumble as student catches Covid-19 from a stranger 20 feet away after only five minutes; Update on my portfolio strategy.

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Quick Summary

This week there was a torrent of new information on virus spread, economic impact, investment repercussions, as well as more news on vaccines and the virus itself.

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 death wave continues to run amok as U.S. shatters grisly first wave record

For the 32nd 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 official death toll had climbed to 302,762 (versus 285,705 last Saturday morning). Here's a quick summary of what's happened so far:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Then the third death wave began on October 9th and is currently tracking upwards. Unlike earlier waves, this was led by rural areas (although now it is spreading across the entire country and surging in all sized areas).

How did things go this week?

This week, deaths skyrocketed to new heights. And this shattered the grisly death record that was set back in the dark, early days of the pandemic (and which many had assumed we’d never see again).

On Thursday, the U.S. passed another unfortunate milestone. Covid-19 caused more deaths in one day (3,080) than occurred on the September 11 terrorist attacks (2,977).

Additionally, the Covid-19 tracking project reported that 107,000 U.S. citizens were hospitalized for Covid-19, which also set a new record.

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. On the other hand, many states have enacted varying lockdowns which may start to kick in and change the trajectory. So we’ll be watching this very closely to see what happens.

Crystal ball: Infections climb as mobile data shows record numbers of Americans spent Thanksgiving away from home.

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?

It’s difficult to see what happened, because of the placement of the CDC label. So let’s switch the graph to linear mode to get a closer view. Note that, since pandemics occur exponentially (and not linearly), a linear graph can make increases seem larger than they are (and make decreases seem smaller). Having said that, here’s what the close-up looks like:

Unfortunately, new infections continued to climb and also set a record high for the pandemic. Last week, there was some hope for potential slowdown. But so far, it’s looking minimal at best.

Another lingering concern: epidemiologists have repeatedly expressed the fear that many Americans would be likely to ignore health advice and mingle with family and friends outside of their homes. And if this happens, we would expect to see another surge.

How is that playing out? This week, SafeGraph (a mobile traffic data provider) published a report analyzing U.S. cell phone data during Thanksgiving. The information was anonymized to avoid breaching privacy. And unfortunately, they found that one in five Americans flouted public health guidance and spent Thanksgiving away from their homes. This set a pandemic record.

Additionally, one in eight people traveled more than 30 miles. In total, a startling 80% of all counties actually had higher amounts of Thanksgiving travel than in 2019.

Unfortunately, the 3rd wave hasn’t been much of a surprise so far. 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.

Further 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: South Korea stumbles, Sweden struggles, and rest of Europe continues to turn the corner

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 week was a bad one for South Korea. Deaths skyrocketed far past the peak of the second wave and close to the peak of the first. For the last several weeks, the country has been battling a third wave, which was triggered by a super-spreader event at a church in Seoul. And this week, there are disturbing signs that things are not under control.

Still, the biggest positive for South Korea is that (at least so far) 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 is Sweden doing? Unfortunately, it’s only productive to cover Sweden’s developments once a month now (versus every week like we had been doing for months). There used to be hope that their unorthodox lockdown-lite strategy might prove itself as a successful alternate model for other countries to follow. But after a recent surge of infections, hospitalizations and deaths, they’re reversing course and their numbers are becoming much more similar to others. And so far, the strategy has resulted in worse economic damage and many more deaths (versus the top countries).

This week, Sweden’s deaths continued to climb. And if it continues at the current rate, they will soon eclipse their peak in the first wave. The other big issue for Sweden to overcome is that their strategy has thus far been a failure in its main goal: protecting its economy. The country is still expected to plunge into a severe recession (their GDP is projected to be -5.6% in 2020, versus -5.9% for the U.S.). This is a bit better than the average -8.1% projected for the Euro Zone, but is not the large benefit many hoped to see. How has the Swedish experiment performed, versus other strategies? To see that, accurately, we have to look at deaths per million (which puts both large and small countries on the same level playing field). Here's how that looks this week:

Unfortunately, Sweden's strategy continues to lag most of the world. At about 744 deaths per million, it's more than three times worse than the average country (many of whom have far less resources). And it’s still firmly stuck in the pack of the worst performing countries (which includes hard-hit Brazil, United States and Italy).

In comparison, other Scandinavian countries with similar demographic advantages (i.e. an unusually large number of single person households) are doing nine times better than Sweden (Finland and Norway). And the top-tier countries (all in Asia and Oceana) have done anywhere from 21 times better (Australia) to 67 times better (South Korea) to 2500 times better (Taiwan). Let’s move to other countries in mainland Europe next. 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, a second wave of deathsskyrocketed across the continent. Authorities then enacted a variety of new lockdowns (which we've described in detail in previous weeks). And in the last two weeks, many countries appeared to have turned the corner. So how are things going this week?

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. How did they do this week?

This was another good week for Spain, as deaths continued to drop. Let’s hope they continue to turn the corner.

How did some of their neighbors in Europe do? Here's the U.K., France, the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium.

This was a good week, as all of these European countries continued to turn the corner.

So overall, Europe is looking a lot better than it did two weeks ago. And it may have finally put a lid on the out-of-control exponential viral spread they've been suffering for the last couple of months. We'll continue to watch and see.

State Review: “We have forgotten who we are". Third virus wave continues to batter beleaguered U.S. hospitals

For the last several months, we've watched individual U.S. states to get insights into what might happen next at the national level. And here's what we saw:

  • 1. 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 those afflicted by 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.

  • 2. 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 was led by rural places 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?

In the second week of December, 26 states experienced daily increases in deaths. And here are the ones that were hammered the hardest:

Additionally, hospitals in many parts of the country continued to be slammed.

A report released this week (based on data from the Covid-19 Tracking Project) found that a third of Americans live in areas where their hospitals are running critically short of intensive care beds. In total, hospitals serving more than 100 million Americans reported having fewer than 15% ICU beds available as of last week.

Even more ominously, one in ten Americans (mostly in the Midwest South and Southwest) live in an area where intensive care beds are already unavailable or fewer than 5% available. Health experts say that at these levels, it’s difficult or impossible to maintain existing standards of care. This means that some patients end up left to die, unnecessarily.

Beth Blauer, director of the Centers for Civic Impact at Johns Hopkins University, said:

“There’s only so much our frontline care can offer, particularly when you get to these really rural counties which are being hit hard by the pandemic right now.”

Let’s take a closer look at one of those states: North Carolina.

These are three disastrous graphs. New infections, hospitalizations and deaths all increased and all three simultaneously set pandemic-high records.

Currently, more than 95% of ICU hospital beds are occupied in at least eight cities and towns in the state, including Durham.

Dr. Howard Markel, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said:

“Many emergency rooms and hospitals already operate close to capacity on a good day, without coronavirus. Adding a sharp spike of very ill COVID-19 patients to that traffic could mean some people don’t get the care they need – whether they have coronavirus or not.”

On Tuesday, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced a 10 PM curfew for the state:

“We know that hospital capacity is threatened here, and we can do things to prevent that. The study showed what would happenif we aren’t doing anything else, and so we are doing that something else today to try to affect this trajectory.”

Let’s take a look at another state: Mississippi.

Mississippi also has three very bad looking graphs. New infections, hospitalizations and deaths are all surging. And both infections and hospitalizations have set pandemic high records.

Mississippi Gov. Reeves ignored state health officials’ advice over the Thanksgiving holiday and declined to even ask Mississippians to forego visiting family. He said:

"I'm not gonna stand up here and tell you that you can't be with family. Because each Mississippian has to make their own decisions."

On Thursday, Mississippi State Health Officer. Dr. Thomas Dobbs announced that all intensive care units across the state are 100% full. Additionally, all elective surgeries in the state will now be postponed.

Dr. Justin Turner, the CEO of TurnerCare, a Jackson internal medicine clinic, said this week:

"In April, when things were getting bad, I thought we'd lose some battles, but come together. Because that's what America does. Now that hope is fading. At this point in history, we have forgotten who we are."

Dr. Aaron Browne is a physician at University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC), said this week:

"For most of 2020 we have lived in hell. Like worker bees thrown into the fire.
You go in, you gown up in all the protective gear. You often get four days a month off, max. You work weekends. You come in at 6 in the morning and see COVID until you leave at 7 at night.
You leave, and you can't even get home before you hear it on the radio. Downplaying what you just saw for the last 12-hour shift. You have to be the mouthpiece for your friends, your family, people you don't even know. You have to convince them that it's real. [But] eventually it just becomes too tiring. You have to learn to tune it out. [But] it keeps eating away at you. Suicide rates among physicians are incredibly high. Especially training physicians.”

Yesterday, the executive director for communications and marketing for UMMC, Marc Rolph, announced that as of Friday morning, 13 people were waiting for an ICU bed that wasn’t available.

Georgia’s bellwether economic recovery: revisited in 1 week

(Note: Georgia’s economy is now being reviewed only once a month, as described below. So this section has no new updates, and we’ll be revisiting the state fully in one week.)

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 This is a service which tracks mobile phone usage to different types of businesses to measure foot traffic. And we've watched them week by week across all of Georgia's four primary Covid-19 sensitive industries: restaurants, retail, fitness, and hotels.

How’s that gone over the last six or seven months? We've seen different sectors moving back and forth during that time, as well as different individual businesses in those sectors. But overwhelmingly, results have ranged from disappointing to dismal. And while there have been occasional spurts of improvement to celebrate, these have almost always been quickly followed by disappointing backtracking.

So at this point, the Georgia experiment has failed to achieve its goal of a V-shaped recovery. This is why I’ve called a halt to the weekly monitoring of the state and will only be checking in monthly. We will look again in one more week.

Economy pummeled by surging wave of new unemployment

Unemployment has historically been one of the most reliable indicators of when the U.S. has entered a recession and when its left one. So that's why we examine it very closely, every week. And unfortunately, over the last 29 weeks, the economy has been hammered week after week by massive levels of new unemployment. This week was no different, with 853,000 people newly unemployed. Not only was this no improvement from last week (712,000), but it actually was a significant backtracking.

Unfortunately, at eight months into the pandemic, we’re still getting weekly job losses that are more than three times the pre-pandemic level. Back in June, virtually no one expected the continuing damage to last this long. Meanwhile, as we've talked about every week for the last several months: "continuing claims" are also a useful statistic to look at within this report. Jobless claims only tell us who lost jobs over the last week, but continuing claims removes the ones who have been rehired.

On the other hand, this statistic isn't perfect, because people who stay unemployed for a large number of weeks lose state benefits and fall off of the statistic. However, these people then show up in the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) stat. But this number also has the same problem (people lose this benefit after 13 weeks of unemployment). And at that point, these people have nowhere else to go and simply fall out of both statistics and “disappear”. This can cause the numbers to give the appearance of improvement, while the underlying situation is not actually improving.

Also, as we talked about in early December, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (a non-partisan government watchdog) found that statistical issues are causing both under- and over-counting of the PEUC stats. So they should not be viewed as individual people. Still, virtually all economists agree that over time, many of the inaccuracies tend to even out and the trend is still useful to look at.

So how did continuing claims look this week? This week, continuing claims also climbed to 5.76 million (from 5.5 million last week). And the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program decreased to 8.56 million (from 8.87 million last week). So these numbers were mixed. And both were still disappointing to those hoping for a more meaningful drop.

The chief economist at Wells Fargo, Jay Bryson, commented:

“In general, the trend of employment growth clearly is slowing. Clearly, we’ve lost momentum in terms of the job market.”