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Extreme Volatility Likely to Persist Amid Uncertainty

March 13, 2020

Key Takeaways
  • We believe the trend in equity markets will be lower until greater clarity emerges regarding the spread of COVID-19. 
  • Economic activity is being pressured on multiple fronts which should cause growth to slow dramatically in the coming quarters.
  • An aggressive monetary response to the crisis has been ineffective so far, yet we expect the Federal Reserve will deliver additional interest rate cuts at its March meeting.
Shocks to Global Equities, Economy Mounting

Shocks to the financial markets from the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis picked up in intensity this week. Over the weekend, a price war broke out between Saudi Arabia and Russia, sending oil prices plummeting. On Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a global pandemic. Volatility, as measured by the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), which had been above 40 since initial news of the virus spread outside China in late February, spiked above 60 – a level last reached in the throes of the global financial crisis. The selloff in global equities has accelerated despite aggressive monetary policy responses from global central banks and pervasive measures to contain the outbreak. Markets have been reacting to the panic and emotion of the current situation, with investors seeking liquidity. While we acknowledge the impact of COVID-19 is significant, we believe its effects will ultimately be transitory and there will be a restoration of longer-term growth.

The collapse in oil prices has taken a toll on both inflation expectations and interest rates, with even the 30-year U.S. Treasury yield falling below 1%. Given the 1-2 punch to the economy, market participants are now pricing in a further 75 basis points of rate cuts at or before the March 17-18 FOMC meeting. Further easing would not be unprecedented, with the Fed historically following intra-meeting cuts (like the one seen last week) with additional ones at the subsequent meeting. Traditionally, the Fed will mirror the easing seen during the emergency meeting which would suggest a reduction of the federal funds rate by 50 bps (Exhibit 1).

 

Exhibit 1: Federal Reserve Actions Following Emergency Rate Cuts

Data as of March 12, 2020. Source: Cornerstone Macro.

 

We do not believe the Fed’s strong reaction is misplaced given the material increase in the probability of a recession in recent weeks. There are four things contributing to the potential for weaker GDP, in our view. First, U.S. oil production, particularly shale, will likely see a substantial decline in response to the OPEC+ induced price declines. In 2015-16 when oil prices collapsed, the domestic rig count troughed 50% below current levels. A decline in activity across the oil patch could lead to 0.65% lower GDP over the next several quarters. Second, the Boeing 737 MAX production shutdown continues, which will likely lower first quarter GDP by 0.50% on its own and continue to impact the economy in the second quarter. Third, the U.S. saw warmer than normal weather across much of the country in the first quarter, particularly in January. While this leads to a short-term boost as activity such as housing gets pulled forward, there is normally a payback in the following months that could detract from second quarter GDP. Finally, consumer and business confidence could come under pressure due to COVID-19 fears. Weaker consumer spending, lower business capex and reduced hiring plans in particular could damage the economy. Unfortunately, corporations are facing the aforementioned challenges from a relatively vulnerable position. Corporate profit margins have been declining for the past two quarters on the back of higher compensation costs and tariff-related issues. As a result, it might not take much for them to collectively retrench with regard to their largest expense, labor.

The March 12 equity market decline of 9.98% (Dow Jones Industrial Average Index) represented the second largest single day drop since 1940 (Exhibit 2). History would suggest a near-term bounce as the average return following the 19 largest single-day declines was +3.8% with 14 of them positive. While equities did recover over the next two trading sessions following Monday’s 7.6% decline, continued uncertainty over containment of the virus caused selling pressure to resume.

 

Exhibit 2: Largest Single Day Market Declines

Data as of March 12, 2020. Source: Cornerstone Macro.

 

We believe the bias for the market over the intermediate term could be lower until greater clarity emerges regarding the spread of COVID-19. Typically, the bottoming process for large market drawdowns takes place over the course of weeks, if not months. While the fourth-quarter 2018
selloff experienced a rapid rebound that did not retest the Christmas Eve lows, we would be wary of using this as the template for the current market backdrop. Even though there is a lot of bad news priced into the market at the moment, it remains unclear how vulnerable the economy will be as governments, businesses, and consumers respond to the evolving outbreak. For example, quarantine-like measures, school closings, and travel restrictions could have a pronounced effect on U.S. economic activity. Consumers could alter their behavior and spending patterns by avoiding public situations like malls, restaurants, and movie theaters. Financial markets will be particularly focused on the potential for credit losses as businesses with weaker balance sheets come under pressure. Until clarity is restored, volatility will likely remain elevated. Given this backdrop, we believe the current turmoil represents an opportunity to review holdings and favor higher quality companies with durable business models and a high degree of visibility into their earnings profiles.

Scott Glasser

Co-Chief Investment Officer, Portfolio Manager
29 Years experience
27 Years at ClearBridge
  • All opinions and data included in this commentary are as of the publication date and are subject to change. The opinions and views expressed herein are of the author and may differ from other portfolio managers or the firm as a whole, and are not intended to be a forecast of future events, a guarantee of future results or investment advice. This information should not be used as the sole basis to make any investment decision. The statistics have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but the accuracy and completeness of this information cannot be guaranteed. Neither ClearBridge Investments, LLC  nor its information providers are responsible for any damages or losses arising from any use of this information. 

  • Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

  • Performance source: Internal. Benchmark source: Standard & Poor’s.