It may get a lot worse before it gets any better.
Sales of face masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant may be spiking worldwide due to the cascading spread of 2019 novel coronavirus, but the stock market is deep in the red. Thursday marked a fifth straight trading day with serious declines on the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500. The Dow actually saw its biggest one-day point drop ever, and both indexes fell more than 4.4 percent at the closing bell. A seemingly never-ending deluge of reports of the wider business implications of the virus—from big banks restricting travel abroad to tech companies bailing on conferences to airlines suspending flights—pointed to a crisis that was making itself felt throughout the American economy.
The scary part is, even if U.S. cases of the virus stopped increasing—which seems extremely unlikely—the ripple effects are already in place for long-term shock to the world economy.
While it is of course difficult to predict how the stock market will perform, there were 346 companies set to announce earnings results from 2019’s fourth quarter on Friday; more than 1100 were expected to release quarterly earnings reports the first week of March. Any additional news of lower-than-expected sales, production, inventory, or profits will also drag down stock prices and related indexes.
In the years after the SARS virus was identified in 2003, the global economy has become incredibly reliant on China as a manufacturer, supplier, buyer, and trade partner. The country now produces massive amounts of car parts, computers, chemicals, clothing, plastic components and even Christmas decorations. According to the U.S. Trade Department, China exported $539.5 billion in goods just to the United States in 2018.
With a reputation for low cost, efficiency, and nimble production, Chinese items have been incorporated into supply chains around the world. However, mass quarantines and transportation cutoffs in several major cities, including Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, resulted in such severe factory shutdowns that economists and financial analysts say it could take several months before production returns to normal levels, even as facilities have already started to reopen. Apple seemingly forever ago—it was just 10 days—told investors the company would miss its quarterly revenue target due to a drop in Chinese sales and “supply shortages” for its popular iPhones.
Even if companies were immediately able to fully restart Chinese production facilities and bring everyone they needed back to work, there’s still a backlog to recover due to slim margins, just-in-time delivery, low inventories, and inventory management strategies—as well as global transportation routes, which have all been affected by quarantines and staffing shortages.
The explosion of the country’s middle and upper class has also driven massive sales growth in the luxury, travel, electronics, movies, seafood, and education sectors, many of which have ground to a halt due to the government, corporate, and personal responses to COVID-19.
As more time passes and more people are placed under quarantine, the disruption to businesses and consumers around the world has started to become even more pronounced. This includes the cancellation of major trade exhibitions like Facebook's F8 conference, the declines in cruise bookings after the quarantine of the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, J.P Morgan’s restriction on non-essential global travel, and the very serious ongoing discussion about the possible cancellation of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Finally, the stock market is a reflection of investor sentiments regarding consumer optimism, international trade, and the global economy. But the structure of millions of U.S. jobs and the design of the American healthcare system have already shown signs the country is ill-equipped to deal with a significant outbreak, which would put domestic productivity and the employment rate at severe risk.
China has implemented a policy that no government worker can be fired as a result of the quarantine, and Hong Kong is offering cash payouts for adult permanent residents to help resuscitate the economy as a result of COVID-19 and months of protests in the city.
In the United States, there are no such protections for millions of American workers who do not have paid sick leave or medical insurance, especially in industries like food service, retail, and janitorial services. Millions of Americans are also subject to low wages (the national minimum wage has not changed in more than a decade), are living paycheck to paycheck (a 2019 report from the Federal Reserve found 40 percent of Americans could not cover an unexpected expense of $400 without borrowing), and would incur significant fees for seeing a doctor at a walk-in clinic, making it difficult for many individuals to seek medical care for severe illnesses, much less symptoms of a virus like COVID-19. Health Secretary Alex Azar stated at a congressional hearing on Wednesday that his department could not promise the cost of a vaccine for the coronavirus would be affordable, which increases the likelihood of a financial burden for Americans seeking preventative treatment.
It's worth noting that for all of this negative movement in the markets, Chinese restaurants and businesses across Canada and the United States have unfairly suffered declines in business due to racist fears about COVID-19. This isn't something you'll see in an upcoming report from an investor or financial analyst, but for many cities, these businesses are as integral to the culture of America as much as the iPhone.
Ultimately, COVID-19 is a virus that has sickened tens of thousands of people in dozens of countries. Many of those people do not own stocks. But even a best-case scenario here likely means the road “back to normal” takes a while, even with better-than-expected jobs reports. Other indicators worth paying attention to include the 48 states that saw their real median household income growth decline in Trump’s first two years in office (after signs the middle class might actually be doing better), a prediction from Goldman Sachs that U.S. companies would see zero earnings growth this year, and the Dow Jones recording its worst four-day stretch since the 2008 financial crisis.
In other words, we’re not seeing a gigantic housing bubble erected on shadowy, “toxic” assets collapse right now the way we did a decade ago. But there’s plenty of room for more chaos in the days—and hours—to come.