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Stocks Bounce As News Suggests Possible, Readily-Available COVID-19 Treatments May Be Effective
(Simultaneously published at Money Daily)
Friday, March 20, 2020, 9:05 am ET
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 2? 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.
Investopedia.com 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:
Wall Street Endures Another Wicked Day of Losses; Oil At Multi-Decade Lows; Gold, Silver Decoupling
(Simultaneously published at Money Daily)
Thursday, March 19, 2020, 9:15 am ET
There is nothing good that can be said about market action on Wednesday, March 17, except that it could have, and probably should have, been worse. A late-session rally brought all US indices off their lows of the day, to finish with spectacular, though not record, losses.
The Dow Industrials were down by as much as 2,320 points, the NASDAQ had fallen 648 points, and the S&P had fallen by 249 points before the late-day surge. The losses were spread across almost all sectors and stocks, some retail operations, grocery chains, and consumer favorites, such as Dow components, Wal-Mart (WMT) and Walgreens (WBA), enjoyed gains of 2.78% and 6.47%, respectively.
Oil was beaten to multi-decade lows, with WTI crude falling to $20 per barrel and Brent hitting the $25 mark.
Most of the financial carnage was caused by effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts by governments and medical professionals around the world to control its spread. Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 220,000 and caused over 9,000 lives. In the United States, the numbers are growing rapidly with widespread testing becoming available. Cases are up to nearly 10,000 and 150 deaths have been attributed to the disease.
Where Wall Street and international markets go from here is plain for all to see. With financial assets having been boosted relentlessly after the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008-09, stocks are being sold off as though they had little to no value, which may, in fact, be the correct assumption.
With many companies and cities shut down indefinitely, people are more concerned about their personal health and welfare than what's in their 401k or retirement accounts. Financial stocks and airlines have thus far led the cascading declines, but they are being joined by stocks of all stripes.
Overnight, the Senate approved a bill sent by the House of Representatives and ready to be signed into law by President Trump for over $100 billion in relief to various segments of the country. The bill includes provisions for free coronavirus testing, paid sick leave and emergency leave for some individuals, food relief and enhanced unemployment benefits, which are probably going to be needed with an expected spike in new claims.
The European Central Bank approved a 715 euro stimulus package aimed primarily at bond repurchases and other assorted financial plumbing.
At 8:30 am ET, the US Labor Department updated the most recent new claims for unemployment insurance of 281,000, an increase of 70,000 from the previous week, though that number is for the week ending March 14. Claims are expected to surge to over 500,000 next week and some estimates are projecting job losses of more than three million by July, a number that is likely to be seen as conservative.
Gold and silver continue to be sold off as holders of paper contracts sell to make margin calls. The paper prices of the metals feel again on Wednesday, leaving gold at $1474.40 and silver closing n New York at $11.89.
Physical precious metal prices have broken away from the futures, with dealers charging extensive premiums as demand has skyrocketed. Silver is selling for $17 to $20 and more per ounce, with some dealers imposing 100% premiums. Prices on eBay for single ounce purchases of silver are ranging from $18 to $24 and higher.
Gold, partly because its high price holds down demand, is being sold in a range of $1580-$1675 per ounce with widespread shortages at online dealers. While the premiums for gold are still in the 10% range, they are significantly higher than just a few weeks ago. One would expect the gold price to be rising amid the buying surge, and decoupling from the paper price of the metals - which has already occurred with silver - may be imminent.
Bonds were sold at the long end of the treasury yield curve, sending the 30-year bond to 1.77% yield and the 10-year note to a yield of 1.18%, while the shortest durations, 1, 2, 3, and 6-month bills were hot tickets, ending the day with yields of 0.04, 0.03, 0.02, and 0.08%, respectively.
As Wall street steadies for another day of wicked trading, European markets are marginally lower. Asian markets felt even more pain in early Thursday trading. Indonesia's Jakarta Composite Index was down 5.20%; South Korea's KOSPI Composite was off 8.39%; the Straits Times Index off 4.73; Japan's NIKKEI fell by a mere 1.04%, and the Hang Seng, Hong Hong's index, was down 2.61%.
At the Close, Wednesday, March 18, 2020:
Stocks Gain Tuesday, Busy Fed Monetizes Stocks Amid Spreading COVID-19 Virus
(Simultaneously published at Money Daily)
Wednesday, March 18, 2020, 7:15 am ET
On the heels of Monday's knee-knocking losses, Tuesday's trade to the upside was somewhat predictable, in that a dead cat bounce usually follows massive losses, so the major indices continued along their path of one step forward, two (or three, four, or five) steps back.
There has not been back-to-back gains on the majors since a four-day stretch from February 4-7, as stocks rose relentlessly to new highs, the general top coming on February 12, in itself a surprising date, since the coronavirus was already in the process of devastating China and its economy, already having disrupted the global supply chain. How could investors have been so short-sighted? Greed has a certain blinding element to it, as does the opposite market reaction, fear, which has taken firm hold in the US markets and around the world.
Tuesday's events surrounding the viral outbreak were more of the standard fare of shutdowns, closures, government-imposed rules, as Europe closed its borders, every nation inside the EU locking down, as did the city of San Francisco, soon to be followed, most likely, by a similar "shelter in place" order in New York City, hinted at by Mayor Bill DeBlasio, shutting down all commerce for the foreseeable future.
The global case count has no exceeded that of mainland China and continues to outpace it. China's figures are still suspect, as they claim to have all but conquered the virus, the number of new cases since February 18 having grown by only 7,000, leveling off in the 81,000 range, a minuscule percentage of China's 1.4 billion population. However, China did lock down more than half of the country, especially in the province of Hubei, he original epicenter. There's probably never going to be any way to verify China's figures, since they announced Tuesday that reporters from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post would have their media credentials revoked, essentially barring them from reporting on anything.
With the March FOMC meeting underway, the Fed was very busy, boosting QE, extending credit for commercial paper to businesses large and small, and, after the market closed, re-instituting a loan facility to primary dealers from the 2008-09 crisis.
Officially called the Primary Dealer Credit Facility, or PMDF, the program will supply primary dealers of equities and other financial instruments loans of up to 90 days for at least the next six months, essentially monetizing stocks by allowing the 24 primary dealers to use stocks as collateral for short-term funding.
Also making headlines were Secretary Steven Mnuchin and President Trump, who were touting a plan to send $1000 checks to most Americans, specifically singling out millionaires, who, according to their statements, would not receive any handouts.
Boeing (BA), besieged by their own errors, is asking for a $60 billion bailout from the federal government. Boeing stock has fallen from a high of 440.62 to 124.14 currently, but the aerospace and airplane manufacturer should not be afforded such generosity, given that the company has been derelict in its corporate money management. Over the past 12 years, Boeing has repurchased at least $40 billion of its own shares, so, if it is in need of capital, it should just sell those stocks in the open market.
Boeing's stock buyback scheme worked to enrich shareholders and top executives as the share price soared as available stock was taken out of circulation and dividends were increased. Instead of reinvesting their profits, Boeing executives showered themselves with lavish bonuses and stock options. Now that a rainy day has arrived, they come begging for money from US taxpayers.
The same is true of major airlines, who spent almost all of their free cash flow on stock buybacks since the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-09. It's a travesty beyond compare.
While stocks held their own private party, other parts of the economic landscape obviously didn't share in the celebratory mood. Crude oil was sent to fresh lows, WTI crude cratering to $26.95 on Tuesday, and falling even more, to $26.04, in early Wednesday trading.
Gold and silver have been ravaged for days, though gold rallied sharply on Tuesday while silver fell to new lows, sending the gold-silver ratio to unimaginable heights. The last spot silver price in New York was $12.56 per ounce. Gold settled Tuesday at $1527.90, leaving the ratio at 121.65, an unbelievable figure, far and away the highest level in the 5,000 years of gold and silver being used as money.
As investment grade (IG) spreads have blown out to crisis levels, the treasury curve steepened dramatically on Tuesday, as the short end was bought and longer-dated maturities were sold. The total spread from 1-month bills out to 30-year bonds increased from 109 basis points on Monday to 151 Tuesday, the 30-year yield spiking 29 basis points to 1.64%, the 10-year note yielding 1.02%, also 29 basis points higher. At the short end, the 1-month bill yields 0.12%, falling from 0.25% on the day.
Thus, with millions of Americans at home for the next two weeks, with no sports, little work, and high anxiety, high finance drama continues to play out daily in the markets, which, for better or worse, remain unfettered and open for business.
The world is witnessing a financial calamity in real time.
At the Close, Tuesday, March 17, 2020:
Following Massive Declines, Wall Street, Global Markets
Brace For Recessions, Bankruptcies, Deficits
(Simultaneously published at Money Daily)
Tuesday, March 17, 2020
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: