Equity markets, in the long run, are a proxy for human ingenuity and innovation. As long as you believe in this core premise— the simple answer remains ‘this too shall pass’!
In the last few days, global equity markets have fallen sharply on concerns over coronavirus that causes a respiratory illness, first identified in China's Wuhan and now spreading globally.
The decline came as the outbreak continued to spread outside China, with Iran, South Korea and Italy reporting a surge in infections. At present, the total reported cases have crossed 81,000 and deaths have been upwards of 2,750.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
Investors are worried that this could lead to a prolonged economic slowdown across the world.
Looking at the past
Unfortunately, there are several uncertainties involved in the current situation–how quickly a vaccine can be developed, where the virus will spread next, and most importantly, how quickly the it can be contained.
The broad sense that we are getting at this juncture is it could still go "in any direction".
This leaves us with a humble view:
It is not possible to predict the extent to which the coronavirus can spread and its consequences for the market.
That being said, we can, however, get a rough sense of how equity markets have behaved during similar epidemics.
The table below shows how the US equity market (represented by S&P 500) reacted to the past outbreaks.
What happened in the Indian markets?
In the three months following an outbreak, the global as well as Indian markets saw small declines, if any. Inevitably, equity markets recovered post that.
So, the key takeaway is that past epidemics only had a temporary short-term impact on equity markets and it faded away over the long term.
For making a decision we have two perspectives to consider:1. History indicates that epidemics have had very minimal short-term impact.
2. The possibility of "what if this time it’s different" and more severe, leading to a sharp market decline
How do we come to terms with the view that–odds of a sharp fall are low and yet, we cannot completely rule out a sharp decline?If you haven’t guessed still, it’s a roundabout way of being honest with you.
The answer is we can’t precisely predict the future. Neither can anyone else.
The paradox of accepting that things are not under our control is that suddenly we get better control over the situation. This is because now we start to prepare for a wider range of outcomes rather than trying to forecast a precise outcome and act based on it.So how do we ‘prepare’?
There are possibly two paths the markets can take if coronavirus concerns persist:
Path 1 (with high odds): History Repeats… Markets have a small fall but recover quicklyAction to be taken:
- As long as your portfolio is well-diversified, aligned with your risk tolerance and in line with your long-term plan, no action is required
- You can continue to remain with your long-term intended equity allocation
Path 2 with low odds but possible: This time it’s different–the coronavirus impact is significant and it impacts the global economy leading to a steep market decline.
Now before you think, this is going to be a straightforward path, there is a small twist to the plot…
Except for in retrospect, you won’t know if the market is on Path 1 or Path 2!
As with all previous market declines, it is impossible to know beforehand whether a 10% fall is a precursor to a prolonged steep fall or is just a normal temporary decline that is expected to recover immediately.
So, the overall idea is to humbly acknowledge this “I don’t know and I recognize that the world is a complicated place” stance and have a plan on when and what to act, if a crisis follows.
This will help us convert path 2 (a crisis), if at all it happens, into an opportunity!A simple plan might look like (this can be customised based on your risk profile, time frame and plan):
- 10% fall – No action
• 20% fall – Move 20% from debt portion (intended for tactical allocation) to equities
• 30% fall – Move next 30% from debt portion (intended for tactical allocation) to equities
• 40% fall – Move next 40% from debt portion (intended for tactical allocation) to equities
• 50% fall – Move next 10% from debt portion (intended for tactical allocation) to equities
*In case of extreme valuations for the market, this plan might need some adjustments. But at the current juncture, the valuations are close to long term averages for most measures such as MCAP to GDP, PB ratio (except for PE ratio where it is on the higher side) and hence our plan holds good.
This will ensure that you are better prepared to take advantage of the market without the need to predict the precise impact of how coronavirus plays out.
The lure of “I knew it all along. If only I had”.
The most likely failure point during market volatility periods usually happens at the period between 10-20% declines.
Why?Because this is the juncture where you are confused whether it is path 1 or path 2.
When the fall prolongs, there is a natural instinct to sell now and enter later, which plays at the back of your mind.
While you might resist the temptation to act (assuming you are sold on you-can’t-predict-but-only-prepare-philosophy), if the market continues to fall further, then suddenly regret kicks in.
Though there is overwhelming evidence that no one can predict, you feel that actually, you did predict the fall!
“If only I had listened to my own intuition and sold out”-- your inner voice is mad at you. Any further fall and you are convinced – to hell with this “can’t predict” crap.
And, you utter the most dangerous words, “Let me move out and enter later”.
And going by the experience of several million investors across the world, more often than not the story doesn’t end well.
The biggest issue in getting out is to again get back into equity markets. Even if you are right the first time, to get back in, you need to be right twice.
And while we imagine the equity market trajectory to be a simple straight line, there are too many false upsides during a fall.
This lulls you into complacency (read as “I have seen these temporary upsides before. It will fall again. I will wait”), and when the actual recovery happens, you think it’s yet another false start and by the time you realise this one is the real one, it is usually too late.
It is important to be aware of this failure zone as much of the success in sticking to your plan will be dependent on how you behave in this period.Parting thoughts
While it is impossible to predict the impact of coronavirus, history indicates that usually the global economy and equity markets have been relatively immune to epidemics.
However, if this one turns out to be different and has a significant negative impact, we are ready with our “what-if-things-go-wrong” plan.
The idea is to be humble and accept that the world is an uncertain place. It always will be.
Equity markets, in the long run, are a proxy for human ingenuity and innovation. As long as you believe in this core premise–the simple answer remains “this too shall pass”!
From our side, as always, while we won’t be able to predict, we will continue to “prepare” our investors, come what may.
Happy investing as always!
(The author is Head of Research at FundsIndia.com)
Disclaimer: The views and investment tips expressed by experts on Moneycontrol.com are their own and not those of the website or its management. Moneycontrol.com advises users to check with certified experts before taking any investment decisions.