Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Following Massive Declines, Wall Street, Global Markets Brace For Recessions, Bankruptcies, Deficits

With most of America and parts of the rest of the world on lockdown in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus, international markets and Wall Street investors suffered stunning losses even with the Federal Reserve lowering interest rates essentially to zero and promoting a heavy dose of quantitative easing Sunday night.

The world awoke to a different place on Monday, one in which social distancing was preferred over social networks, toilet paper was more valued that commercial paper, and sheltering in place triumphed over going anyplace.

US indices encountered the worst point losses ever and the largest percentage declines since the 1987 crash which sent stocks reeling by 22 percent. Back then, there were no "circuit breakers" as are in place today, so the waves of selling were allowed to just continue until trading ended.

Monday's journey into the depths of despair began with futures going limit down (-5%) prior to the opening bell, after the Fed panicked and sent the federal funds to 0.00-0.25%, and launched a massive bond-buying binge, otherwise known as QE. None of that helped. In fact, the Fed's emergency actions, coming right before a planned FOMC meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday, sent a signal that all was not well and that liquidity was at the top of the Fed's agenda.

Having credit markets seize up, as they did in the 2008 rout, would be an economic disaster in itself, exacerbated by the effects of trying to tame the coronavirus, people out of work, events cancelled, life, as it used to be known, utterly changed, but for how long, nobody knows.

When the opening bell rang on Wall Street, trading was halted almost instantaneously, with the S&P 500 declining seven percent, setting off the first circuit breaker for the third time in the past two weeks. After a fifteen minute pause, stocks reopened, collapsed below the seven percent mark, but never made their way to the next circuit breaker, at -13%, until after 3:30, when the circuit breakers are effectively "turned off" in the final 25 minutes of trading.

As President Trump spoke at the White House, stocks continued to tumble into the close, saved by some spirited short-covering minutes before 4:00 pm ET.

Elsewhere, markets in Europe and Asia were likewise battered, with just about the entire world's markets already in bear markets and likely to fall further. The dangers for stocks are varied, but essentially fall into three areas. First, supply chain disruptions stemming from China and elsewhere grinding production to a halt. Second, even if corporations have goods or services to sell, the virtual lockdown of more than half the global population is causing a demand shock. Third, having employees working from home or furloughed will wreak havoc on underlying corporate structures and the general economy.

If the severe measures being taken now don't contain the spread of the virus in two to three weeks - in itself a damaging amount of time - and quarantines are put in place for longer, the economic effect could be devastating, no matter how much money the government wants to throw the way of the corporate class. It is individuals that are being most adversely affected. Federal government plans don't include any relief for the people who contribute 70% of GDP. The government will instead seek to bail out large corporations, figuring that if they are kept afloat, jobs will be saved, which is, of course, hogwash, because there will be nothing to stop cash-strapped corporations from laying off employees by the thousands.

With bars, restaurants, night clubs, and casinos being ordered to shut down, layoffs have already begun. On Monday, New York State's unemployment website crashed as thousands rushed to apply for benefits. Americans have been living hand-to-mouth, paycheck-to-paycheck for decades and now they're expected to ride out an economic shutdown at home, with their kids and spouses and no income for weeks, maybe months. The federal government should be making plans to offer relief to individuals in the form of direct payments, forbearance on loans, mortgages, and credit cards. Giving money to businesses is not the most efficient way to ease the pain and suffering of families and individuals. Direct assistance would be more beneficial, but, from the squabbling already firing up on capitol hill over the federal government's relief package, it's unlikely that any significant money will find its way down to the family or individual level.

So, with markets due to open Tuesday (up slightly) within minutes, looking ahead for any positive news is a fool's errand. The Fed meeting Tuesday and Wednesday is now a non-event, and Thursday's first look at new unemployment claims could be an eye-opener, though next week's will probably be more impactful.

There's a good chance for a bounce today, but all rallies should be sold into at this point. No sense in catching falling knives nor beating dead horses.

At the Close, Monday, March 16, 2020:
Dow Jones Industrial Average: 20,188.52, -2,997.10 (-12.93%)
NASDAQ: 6,904.59, -970.28 (-12.32%)
S&P 500: 2,386.13, -324.89 (-11.98%)
NYSE: 9,567.53, -1,284.45 (-11.84%)

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