Submitted by Michael Every of Rabobank
Regular readers will know that our four projected COVID-19 scenarios were “Bad, Worse, Ugly, and Unthinkable”. Current news today suggests risks that the base case is rapidly shifting from “Bad”, meaning only China is impacted, to “Ugly”, where both emerging Asia and developed economies see soaring infection rates and deaths.
After all, following Vietnam, Iran now has eight deaths and an uncertain number of cases, prompting schools and universities to closed and the borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan to be sealed from the other side. For an economy already being crushed by sanctions, this is all that it needed. More worrying for markets, South Korea (with a GDP of over USD1 trillion) has also been swamped by hundreds of new cases, a 20-fold leap in just five days, and, as in China, is seeing the highest-level emergency declared, cities on lock-down, gatherings and travel bans in place, and the national assembly additionally suspended. Samsung has had to shutter at least one factory, in the city of Gumi. The Asian economy, already reeling, it about to suffer another major kick.
Worse, in Europe there also are over 160 cases in a cluster in northern Italy, with three deaths so far, and the regions of Lombardy and Veneto, the industrial and financial heartlands, in both panic and lockdown. Venice’s Carnival has been cancelled, and so was a recent fashion show. Italy is 11% of Eurozone GDP, and those two regions are 30% of Italy’s GDP. For a Eurozone already close to recession, that shock could well be more than enough to generate a downturn. Once again, we also see what we said we would in our recent virus special report: a “China-style” response: yesterday a train from Venice to Munich was stopped at the Austrian border because of fears that two passengers on board may have had the virus. So much for Schengen? Recall that the origins of the world “quarantine” come from Venice in an earlier phase of globalisation, and refer to the *40* days sailors had to stay on a visiting ship to prove they were not carrying an infectious disease. No just-in-time supply chains in those days though.
Meanwhile, China is saying the virus may not have started in the seafood market; hot-headed Chinese social media is saying it might have been America who started it; experts are saying COVID-19 can linger on surfaces for nine days, and is airborne, and can be passively carried with no symptoms for up to *27* days, nearly double the 14 days previously thought; and other reports show that false negative tests are a serious issue, with at least one confirmed case of a patient being tested negative twice and then switching to positive. As the WHO, which has urged us all to travel as normal until now, “because markets”, wails, the window to stop this becoming a global pandemic is closing.
By contrast, China is doing its best to say that all is well. Unsurprisingly, since Party Chairman Xi Jinping placed his hand-picked people in charge, new cases have dropped sharply. Optimists see this means the lockdowns have worked - which means more global lockdowns must now be priced in, however; pessimists suggest data goal-seeking is playing a role here. However, deaths have not fallen yet, with another 97 yesterday raising the overall fatality rate worryingly (and one study of 53 Wuhan patients suggests a 61.5% fatality rate for those with any co-morbidity factor such as diabetes and/or heart or lung disease).
Just as unsurprisingly, Xi has publicly promised China will have beaten the virus by the end of March, and that the overall economic goals for 2020 are still in place, even as right now we are still basically flat-lining as shown by traffic congestion, pollution, and property sales. As we have already covered in recent weeks, the only way for BAU to return ASAP is for everyone to start travelling and gathering and working again: which is exactly how the virus will spread, especially after we have been told there is a 27-day latent period, as well as a clear tendency of asymptomatic carriers, and even more so now it has legs outside China too. Even so, people are being urged back to work as eagerly as they were being told to lock themselves in at home just two weeks ago.
Equally unsurprisingly, the PBOC, who have already lowered rates 10bp, are making clear that COVID-19 “will be short-lived and will not change the country’s sound economic fundamentals”. With several reports suggesting up to 85% of China’s small business are going to run out of cash within three months, and many within weeks, its banks riddled with bad loans and already under-capitalised, and the state clearly about to embark on another massive debt-splurge to build more infrastructure to keep to a set GDP number regardless, even when China does re-emerge from COVID-19 it will be sagging under an even more unsustainable debt load, and the state will be playing an even larger economic role. It’s also unclear if foreign firms will be as willing to be embedded in a long, China-centric supply chain regardless, making USD inflows less likely; and all of those issues above will mean the weaker CNY we have referred to for years. It is no surprise we are through 7 again; the larger surprise is that we are not closer to 7.20.
More broadly, of course, the “Ugly” scenario is seeing US Treasury yields test critical support levels. The 10-year is now at 1.47% and another leg down will see us in whole new territory. Likewise, the USD is on a roll upwards and threatening to push higher: imagine if European virus cases spread, the same happens in Japan, and China cannot reopen as planned. And imagine what a stronger USD on top of this virus backdrop will mean for emerging-market USD borrowers. Ugly indeed.
Such is the news-flow that I hardly have time to relate that Bernie Sanders handily won the Nevada Democratic caucus, leaving Joe “White Walker” Biden in a poor second place and Mike Bloomberg looking as user-friendly as his terminals are. That makes Bernie the clear presidential nominee front-runner at this stage - and makes many Never-Trumpers into Rather-Trumpers, I would imagine. And imagine if Bernie’s plans for free healthcare for all intersect with a virus outbreak in the US….(on which note, please see our recent Through The Looking Glass report imagining a Sanders presidency).