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Market Perspective – March 2020

Coronavirus Uncertainty

When nothing else could derail risk markets, along comes the coronavirus (COVID-19). At this point, it is unclear what the ultimate human and economic impact of the virus will be, but downside risks abound. The market response has been to sell risk assets and buy the safety of U.S. Treasuries in a classic flight-to-quality trade. The S&P 500 is down -12.7% from the February 19th record close and is now down -8.27% for the year. Meanwhile, the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury fell 40 basis points to a new all-time low of 1.11% and is down 77 basis points for the year.

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From a return perspective, investment grade bonds benefited nicely from the dramatic move lower with Treasuries 1 producing positive monthly and year-to-date returns of 2.65% and 5.16%, respectively. The broader Bloomberg Barclays Intermediate US Government/Credit Index returned 1.41% for the month and 2.85% year-to-date. There was no such silver lining for the equity markets as the selling was aggressive and broad-based. Meanwhile, the high yield bond market 2 was down slightly for the month (-1.54%) and year (-1.53%); it faired significantly better than equities thanks to the positive price appreciation from the move lower in interest rates in the broader risk off environment.

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To us, the most amazing part of the recent equity market correction is not the magnitude or velocity of the price swings, but instead the instantaneous clamoring from market participants for additional Fed stimulus, emergency rate cuts, coordinated global easing and yes even another round of tax cuts from the Trump administration. What would they ask for if equity markets sold-off 20-30%? These types of reactions to a 12% market correction speaks to a much bigger issue in today’s financial markets that we’ve been talking about for years. Namely, the markets’ dependency on easy money. It’s an issue. The Fed knows it, but they don’t know what to do about it.

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To be sure, additional easing from the Federal Reserve is not going to solve the coronavirus outbreak. Additionally, they have been clear that monetary policy is on hold until there is a material reassessment to the economic outlook or inflation is significantly and persistently above their 2% target. To date, neither has happened. Of course, markets are forward- looking and pricing in the future negative impact of the coronavirus, thus asking for easing today. We do not envy the Fed’s position. Trying to set monetary policy during a period of market turbulence, sparked by a novel virus that nobody knows a thing about, is challenging to say the least.

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If the virus gets materially worse from here, the negative economic implications will be undeniable and unavoidable. The Fed would be forced to ease policy further, attempting to spur a stalling U.S. economy. However, if the Fed chooses to preemptively respond and the economic outcome turns out to be less dire, then their willingness to placate the markets will be on center stage. The Fed cannot afford to be reactionary at this moment. They can afford to be patient, evaluate the impact of the virus, digest incoming economic data and move when they must (rather than when the market tells them to). Of course, this path for policy would likely result in disappointment and another leg lower in equity markets and thus you can see the Fed’s predicament. What the Fed should do and will do can be different things and sometimes for good reason. This might be exactly one of those situations.

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We came into the year with a defensive stance, expecting the U.S. economy to muddle through 2020 and maintained the view that risks to growth remain skewed toward the downside. The coronavirus is clearly one such downside risk and we expect it to have a negative impact on corporate earnings. We’re only 1/6th of the way through the year and we still have the democratic primaries, the next iteration of Brexit and the election to chew on.

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