Friday, March 20, 2020

Stocks Bounce As News Suggests Possible, Readily-Available COVID-19 Treatments May Be Effective

Considering the extreme levels of volatility lately, Thursday's trading was relatively calm. Though the VIX remained elevated, it came down from over 80 to near 70 as the day commenced.

Stocks initially were lower, but found solid footing and ramped higher by mid-morning, the NASDAQ leading the way with speculators eyeing stocks that had cratered over the past three weeks, and began establishing positions at levels they considered to be bargains.

The S&P, Dow, and NYSE composite followed gamely but trailed the red-hot NASDAQ by more than a percentage point throughout the session. It was the first in many days that stocks had not ventured more than three percent in either direction for the last nine sessions, so some might argue that volatility is cooling, though still near record levels.

Moving 900 points from the morning lows to the close, the Dow's move was impressive, considering it has been absolutely damaged the prior session with Boeing (BA) leading the way down on Wednesday with a loss of some 25%. The aircraft manufacturer was down a mere four percent on Thursday, and is sporting a positive sign in pre-market trading Friday.

Thursday's unemployment claims numbers were 281,000, up by 71,000 over the prior week, but were for the week ending March 14, so much of the coronavirus-related data had not been tabulated, but will appear next Thursday.

Goldman Sachs’ Jan Hatzius wrote in a note to clients on Thursday night, “state-level anecdotes point to an unprecedented surge in layoffs this week.” The analyst claims that figures for the week ending March 21 will show initial claims rising to roughly 2¼ million, which would be the largest increase in initial jobless claims and the highest level on record. That's not unlikely, as major cities - San Francisco and New York in particular - are at or near lockdown levels of activity with many workers furloughed or otherwise idled by warnings or edicts from city and state officials.

Philly Fed’s manufacturing activity index crashed to an eight-year low of -12.7 in March from a three-year high of 36.7 in February. This follows the NY Fed’s Empire State Manufacturing index, which also dropped at a record pace to an 11-year low.

In a research report published on Thursday, Bank of America economists predicted the U.S. economy would lose 3.5 million jobs and GDP plummeting at a 12% pace in the second quarter, also probable figures given the severity of the reaction to COVID-19.

What's keeping Wall Street open for business and possibly ending the week with a positive tone are actions taken by the Fed which are too numerous to list, but include opening swap lines to other central banks, injecting billions of dollars via repo and QE, and wide open credit lines to primary dealers.

Also, President Trump's mention of a possible treatments for the virus in his now-daily news briefing, has been getting a great deal of attention. Specifically, the president mentioned a number of possible drugs that showed promise in tests, including Gilead Sciences' remdesivir (Money Daily mentioned Gilead's product back in January as a promising treatment and the stock has responded with a run from 63 to 78 since then) and chloroquine, an inexpensive drug long used to treat malaria, which is widely available and has proven to be an effective anti-viral in clinical trials done recently in China and France.

Thus, while COVID-19 is still making its way through the population, potential treatments are promising and - in the case of chloroquine - readily available in mass quantities at extremely low cost (less than 10 cents per pill in some countries). Also emerging is data from South Korea, Italy, the United States, and elsewhere that show the vast majority of cases that result in death are people over the age of 60 with underlying health conditions such as heart conditions, diabetes, or otherwise compromised immune systems.

That's the kind of news Wall Street traders can get behind, because, if successful treatments become widely available, people could be back at work within weeks, rather than months. While various governments - including California, which late Thursday announced a state-wide stay-at-home recommendation - are trying to limit transmission via social distancing and "soft" quarantines, communities that develop "herd immunity" quickest will be fastest to recover, meaning that the virus spreads readily and renders most of the population immune.

As the opening bell approaches, stock futures have lost some of their momentum, but still point to a positive opening Friday, which also happens to be a quadruple witching day. defines quadruple witching as "...a date on which stock index futures, stock index options, stock options, and single stock futures expire simultaneously. While stock options contracts and index options expire on the third Friday of every month, all four asset classes expire simultaneously on the third Friday of March, June, September, and December."

These dates are normally volatile, but should fit snugly into the current trading regime.

At the Close, Thursday, March 19, 2020:
Dow Jones Industrial Average: 20,087.19, +188.29 (+0.95%)
NASDAQ: 7,150.58, +160.74 (+2.30%)
S&P 500: 2,409.39, +11.29 (+0.47%)
NYSE: 9,461.30, +76.71 (+0.82%)

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