Saturday, April 25, 2020

Scholar Financial's 11th Special Update on COVID-19 and Its Consequences

SCHOLAR FINANCIAL’S
11TH SPECIAL UPDATE ON COVID-19 AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
by Ron A. Rhoades, JD, CFP®
April 25, 2020
In this 11th Special Update, I seek to provide some perspective about the efforts to combat the coronavirus (COVID-19), its impact on the U.S. economy, and its impact on individual investors.
The information contained herein in derived from many sources. As much more scientific research is required into COVID-19, some of the preliminary conclusions repeated herein may be modified later.
This information is for the clients of Scholar Financial, my own investment advisory firm. But, due to the widespread impacts of COVID-19, I make this available to my students, colleagues, and the public, in hopes that the perspectives set forth herein will aid others.

How widespread is COVID-19 in the United States?
As of Saturday April 25th, at 12:52pm, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control lists 895,766 cases of COVID-19 infections in the United States, and 50,439 total U.S. deaths.
The actual number of cases is likely far higher. Many of those infected with COVID-19 have no symptoms, or minimal symptoms, and are never tested.
Likewise, the number of U.S. deaths is also likely greater. Just comparing the number of U.S. deaths, on average, for this time of year, to the reported U.S. deaths, suggests that several thousand (or perhaps ten thousand or more) deaths have resulted from COVID-19. But we won’t know for certain until more research and statistical data is available. In. fact, some studies suggest that deaths from COVID-19 may be over-reported.
In the United States, we have “flattened the curve” nationally. Although local areas vary. Flattening the curve does not mean that new cases don’t occur – it just means that the number of new cases is not increasing, from one day to the next.

Are there “hot zones” or “pockets” of more severe outbreaks of COVID-19?
Yes. Sometimes in major cities. But sometimes in small communities.
According to Liz Ann Sonders, Chief Investment Strategist of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. (on 4/24), less than 3% of counties in the Unites States account for 61% of COVID-19 cases. This is likely a reflection of population density, as well as the increased rate of transmission in densely populated areas.

Is the curve “flattened”? 
As this chart from Financial Times, a United Kingdom newspaper publication, demonstrates, the curve in the U.S. has been flattened, but it is not yet declining.
    SEE: https://www.ft.com/coronavirus-latest for the chart

Will the number of cases of COVID-19 in the United States, and deaths, continue to increase?
Yes. The “national forecast” from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reflects several different models, and indicate a range of about 60,000 to 120,000 deaths in the United States by May 15, 2020. These model forecasts are summarized in this chart from the CDC:

What are the mortality (death) rates for COVID-19, and how do they compare to other seasonal flu viruses?
This is difficult to answer, in part because of the inaccuracy of numbers regarding the number of cases in the U.S., as well as the underreporting of deaths due to COVID-19.
Two widely publicized studies undertaken in two California counties, Santa Clara and Los Angeles, suggested mortality rates far lower than assumed. However, these studies have been widely criticized by other scientists for their methods, and the studies have yet to pass peer review.
A study from Johns Hopkins University, updated April 24, 2020, states that in the U.S. we have had 15.3 deaths for each 100,000 U.S. residents. That is far lower than the rate of death seen in Italy (42.3/100,000), Spain (47.4/100,000), or United Kingdom (28.3/100,000). However, each of those countries had an earlier peak in the number of deaths, relative to the United States which is near or at its peak. Additionally, as stated previously, the number of deaths reported in each country, attributable to COVID-19, may be understated.
According to an article by Jacob Sullum, appearing in Reason, the “current crude case fatality rate (CFR) in New York City—confirmed deaths as a share of confirmed cases—is more than 7 percent. If you include ‘probable deaths’—cases where infection was not confirmed by virus tests but suspected based on symptoms and circumstances—the crude CFR rises to nearly 11 percent. By comparison, the national average is currently 5.7 percent. That average disguises wide geographic variation. In Texas, where I live, the current crude CFR is 2.6 percent. It is 1.5 percent in Wyoming, 3.3 percent in Florida, 3.9 percent in California, 5.4 percent in New Jersey, and 6.2 percent in Louisiana.” I would note, however, that the number of cases of COVID-19 is likely much higher than the “confirmed cases” number. Even with an under-reporting of COVID-19 deaths, the national average mortality rate is like far below the 5.7% stated in this article.
Some epidemiologists suggest that the actual mortality rate for COVID-19 is likely around 1%, or as high as 2%. And, in a recent study that extrapolated data from Italy and applied it to two U.S. regions, University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory data scientists estimate that the fatality rate in New York City and Santa Clara County in California can be no less than 0.5%, or one of every 200 people infected. But nearly all researchers acknowledge that without much more widespread testing, there is no way to know for certain. 
In contrast, the seasonal flu virus has caused from 12,000 to 61,000 deaths annually in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Of those who are infected in the U.S. with the seasonal flu, the mortality rate is about 0.1%.
Taking all of the more recent studies into consideration, it appears that COVID-19 is five to twenty times deadlier than the seasonal flu, at present. Again, however, this number may be much greater, or much less, as a national average. And the mortality rate may vary significantly by geographic area, even within the United States. There simply is not enough widespread testing, and statistical data resulting from same, to determine the actual mortality rate.

Does the mortality rate vary by age, ethnicity, or risk group?
Yes, there are significant differences in mortality rates, among various groups.
According to the CDC, “[b]ased on what we know now, those at high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are:

  •  People 65 years and older
  •        People who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility
  •         People of all ages with underlying medical conditions, particularly if not well controlled, including:
o   People with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma
o   People who have serious heart conditions
o   People who are immunocompromised
§  Many conditions can cause a person to be immunocompromised, including cancer treatment, smoking, bone marrow or organ transplantation, immune deficiencies, poorly controlled HIV or AIDS, and prolonged use of corticosteroids and other immune weakening medications
o   People with severe obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 40 or higher)
o   People with diabetes
o   People with chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis
o   People with liver disease
Blacks and Latinos ages 18 to 64 are dying more frequently of COVID-19 than their white and Asian counterparts relative to their share of the population, according to several surveys. In a study of California deaths, among patients ages 18 to 49 black residents were dying nearly two and a half times as often as their share of the state’s population. Also, black people 65 and older were dying twice as often as their share of that age group.
There are several studies that compare mortality rates by age. In a recent study from Italy, researchers found that those between 70 and 79 had a 2.3% mortality rate, while those 80 to 89 had an almost 6% fatality rate, and for those over 90 the mortality rate was 13%. In that same study, the mortality rate for those ages 40 to 49 was only 0.04%.

What medical complications exist for those who contract COVID-19, possess severe symptoms, but survive?
The Washington Post reported today that there some persons who are young and middle-aged, who contract COVID-19, suffer severe strokes as a result of the disease. Three studies are underway to get a better handle on this, and preliminary data suggests that blood clots form all over the body for some of those infected with COVID-19.
Reports exist that young people, who are otherwise healthy, are dying from COVID-19, or experiencing severe effects from the disease – many of which may be long-lasting. Viral respiratory infections can damage the lungs permanently. Impaired lung function from a COVID-19 infection can negatively affect other organs like the heart, kidneys, and brain, with significant health impacts that may last after getting over the infection.
Those who recover from COVID-19 after being placed into intensive care often see physical impairments, including weakness and malnutrition. Cognitive impairment can also result, including include decreased memory, decreased attention, and decreased mental sharpness or ability to solve problems.
If you are young, you are still at risk. As reported by Colleen Travers on April 22, 2020 in the Huffington Post, Aaron Glatt, chairman of infectious diseases and hospital epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Hewlett, New York, stated: “There are people who are in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and certainly in their 50s who are unfortunately getting very sick. It is myth that healthy young people have nothing to be concerned about.”
But there simply is not much scientists currently know about why some young people are getting extremely sick and others are not. It may take months, or years, to find out why.
COVID-19 is a nasty disease, for many of those who catch it. Don’t take this disease lightly!

Are therapeutic medications available to limit the symptoms, reduce damage to the body, and/or reduce mortality rates?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is overseeing 72 different trials of potential treatments for COVID-19. Another 211 trials are in the planning stages. Many more trials are already underway globally.
Unfortunately, a clinical trial in Brazil testing a high dose of chloroquine to treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients was halted after a spike in deaths among patients who received the drug. Other studies indicate limited or no effectiveness of this drug, commonly used to treat malaria.
Therapeutics, even if they are identified, are effective, and are available in sufficient quantities, are not cures for COVID-19. To prevent persons from contracting COVID-19, and being at risk for medical complications (including but not limited to death), we need a vaccine.
I must note here that under no circumstances should you attempt “home remedies.” One political leader might have recently suggested that chlorine bleach or alcohol could be injected or consumed – don’t do this! Chlorine bleach is toxic; it can and does kill people who drink it. The US Food and Drug Administration regularly warns the public against drinking bleach, or even inhaling fumes from bleach. It is also irritating to skin.

When will vaccines be ready?
It is too soon to tell. Vaccines must go through three phases of testing in order to be evaluated for safety, effectiveness, and proper dosage. Many vaccines show promise, but then fail during one of the phases of testing.
However, development of vaccines has accelerated. Rather than do three separate phases of trials sequentially, a few very promising vaccines are proceeding through two phases at the same time. There is hope that one or more of the vaccines will be approved by the end of 2020.
Producing the vaccines in sufficient quantities is another matter. There are literally billions of doses required to cover the world’s population. The U.S. population is about 330 million. Even if some doses are available by the end of the year, and even if manufacturing of vaccines is stepped up via a huge worldwide effort, it may take most of 2021 (or longer) to get enough doses to cover everyone in need.
  
Who will be vaccinated first?
When vaccines are ready, it would be logical that the vaccines should first go to those most at risk, such as health care workers and those providing necessary goods and services (food, pharmacy, electricity, transportation/delivery, etc.).
Then, those most at risk – such as those who are elderly, and/or those with underlying medical conditions that place them more at risk – might be next in line for vaccinations.
Of course, there are significant decisions to be made, as to what groups will be vaccinated first, then second, etc. And, there will be those who seek, through criminal activity, to “jump ahead” in line.
The World Health Organization brought together the leaders of many countries, and many different organizations, on Friday, April 24th, who pledged to work towards equitable global access to all the tools to prevent, detect, treat and defeat COVID-19. The United States, China, and many other countries have not yet participated in this initiative, which was spearheaded by the European Union.

Are there vaccination development efforts to watch?
There are now reported to be 83 different vaccines in various stages of development. Of those, perhaps one in seven will receive funding to take the vaccines into the human testing phases. As of April 23, 2020, per the World Health Organization, six vaccines were in Phase 1 or Phase 2 trials.
Hopefully, of the ten or so vaccines that eventually proceed through all three human test phases, a few will be deemed safe and effective.
Per economist John Mauldin in an April 24, 2020 article, Inovio is just beginning the initial safety/immune response phase human trials of a vaccine which should show data in June, and they should be in a larger phase 2/3 trial as early as July/August. Inovio plans (but isn’t promising) to have a million vaccinations ready by year-end, and is looking for even higher capacity.
In other developments, Johnson & Johnson signed a deal recently with Emergent BioSolutions to boost manufacturing of the New Jersey drug maker's top COVID-19 vaccine candidate, with Phase I trials starting in September. Johnson & Johnson is ramping up vaccine production capabilities globally, and will likely enter into further deals with the developers of vaccine candidates.
  
Will everyone need to be vaccinated? … “Herd Immunity.”
Hopefully, everyone will. But, as we are aware, some persons are resistant to being vaccinated.
The goal of vaccination is to build up not just individual immunity, but also “herd immunity.” When a sufficient percentage of the population has “protective immunity” from COVID-19, either from previously having the disease (but, see below), or from vaccinations (but, see below), the ability of COVID-19 to spread is greatly reduced.
Given the ease of contracting COVID-19, it is likely that a very high percentage of the public must be vaccinated for herd immunity to be in place. Typically, more than 70 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated for herd immunity to work. That percent rises though, when a disease is particularly infectious. To prevent polio from spreading through the community, about 80 to 85 percent of the population must be immunized. For measles, the percent is even higher – about 95 percent of the population.
Note, however, that once a society gets to the level of herd immunity, COVID-19 would still spread. IT would still infect people and would still kill people. It would just be a less common event.

Will vaccinations be effective?
The CDC states: “[R]ecent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine. In general, current flu vaccines tend to work better against influenza B and influenza A(H1N1) viruses and offer lower protection against influenza A(H3N2) viruses.”
In two studies of the effectiveness of a flu shot against a particular strain of the disease, the flu shots were about 68% effective. But the studies involved persons age 18-64. We know that older persons generally will have a less effective response in developing antibodies against a coronavirus, following vaccination.
Of course, scientists don’t know anything about how effective vaccinations will be against COVID-19. We can only hope that the effectiveness of the vaccine, together with widespread vaccination, will result in a sufficient level of persons with immunity to prevent epidemics of COVID-19 from occurring in later years.

Will vaccinations have to occur every year or two? Can you catch COVID-19 again?
Probably. It is likely that the vaccine for COVID-19 will only boost the immune system against the disease for a year or two. Annual, or bi-annual, vaccinations will likely be required.
Scientists must answer a few basic questions, as to those who have already had COVID-19:
Do people actually develop immunity after recovering from COVID-19?
Is this response strong enough to protect them from getting re-infected?
How long does immunity to COVID-19 last?
We simply don’t know the answers to these questions. Based on the other coronaviruses that exist, it is likely that some form of “protective immunity” will exist for those who have had COVID-19. But perhaps not for all who have had it. And perhaps the protective immunity will last only for months, or for a year or two.

What about testing?
To re-open the economy more fully will require testing. Many experts believe we will need to test 500,000 people a day in the United States, but other experts suggest one or two million tests a day may be necessary.
We are just getting to testing 200,000 a day here in the U.S., and we recently reached a cumulative total of five million tests in the U.S. So, we have a great deal of progress to make, in terms of getting testing more widely available and implemented.
There are many different tests in the United States at present. Some of these tests yield far too many “false positives” or “false negatives.” Other current tests are more reliable, but take two days or longer to get results.
Work is underway on tests that will be more effective, and much faster. If we can get portable tests, that provide results within 15 minutes of the test, this would greatly aid our ability to open up the economy. 

What is the current impact on the U.S. economy? And globally?
Severe. The U.S. economy is expected to decline by 25% or more from its early February 2020 peak, by sometime in the second quarter of this year. Already, the official unemployment numbers have increased to 26 million Americans, and higher rates of unemployment are expected. As of this date – late April 2020 – we have not yet “hit the bottom” in terms of the economy.
Globally the economies of various countries today are far more connected, via trade, than they were even 30 years ago. The International Monetary Fund expects global economic activity to decline on a scale we have not seen since the Great Depression.
While that sounds scary, realize that – unlike the Great Depression of the 1930’s – governments all over the world are undertaking unprecedented efforts to sustain their economies. There has occurred huge amounts of both fiscal stimulus (government spending) and monetary stimulus (lowering of target interest rates by central banks, purchases of debt by central banks to maintain liquidity in various financial markets).
Hence, while the current impact on the U.S. economy is quite severe, there is no reason to believe that another “great depression” will exist for a decade or longer, as occurred back in the 1930’s. This economic decline will be severe, and will likely have several phases to it. Some businesses may be able to bounce back relatively quickly, and sustain their openings, by mid-2021. A full economic recovery may be several years away, however.

Should current stay-at-home and other restrictions be lifted?
Realize first that the entire U.S. economy is not shut down. But a significant portion of U.S. businesses are closed.
Also realize that we are unlikely to return, at least fully, to the pre-COVID-19 era. As long as COVID-19 possesses (or is believed to possess) high mortality rates (relative to the seasonal flu), forms of social distancing restrictions will remain in place for years to come – at least during the winter months.
The answer to the question of lifting restrictions is … some should be lifted, some should not. In some places, but not in others. Decisions should be made at the state level, and perhaps even at the local level (especially in more rural areas of the country, which are distant from densely-populated regions).
This need to make decisions on lifting specific restrictions, at the more localized level, places a lot of decision-making burden on governors, mayors, county commissioners, and city councils to make the right decisions. No doubt some of these decision-makers will err, often under the influence of political biases, pressure from constituents, pressure from businesses, etc. Let us hope, however, that the vast majority of these decision-makers will make good judgements, based on the data (and scientific consensus) available at the time.

Will there be a “V-shaped” recovery?
No, in my view. Rather, think of a long, spread-out “W-shaped” recovery.
I believe that some sectors of our economy will “bounce back” somewhat quickly, but others will not. I personally look for an economic recovery to occur slowly from now through late summer, followed by an economic decline as another severe wave of COVID-19 occurs late this year and extending through the winter months. Then, assuming vaccinations are ramped up rapidly, I foresee a partial quick recovery, but a complete economic recovery will take years.

Of course, developments in medical science (therapeutics, vaccinations) – as well as the availability and effectiveness of testing efforts, and public policies (including monetary and fiscal stimulus efforts, decisions on when to reopen businesses, etc.), will all effect the economic recovery. Along with many, many other economic factors. Note, as well, that the foregoing projections, in my view, a relatively high level of optimism that developments in treatment, vaccination, and economic stimulus will all be favorable. For example, I assume vaccinations will be available and will be manufactured quickly – so that most of the U.S. population receives vaccinations by August 2021. I also assume that by early 2021 the U.S. government enacts an infrastructure plan as means of undertaking a fiscal stimulus, as well as much broader support before then to aid state and local governments (and universities, schools).

Why won’t the economy recover quickly, in your view?
First, consumer spending. If we follow the experience in Wuhan, China, in which a massive lock-down effort to suppress the virus was undertaken for 2-3 months, and then re-opening has occurred but only with massive testing, certain industries won’t recover quickly. For example, despite the lifting of restrictions, there are an insufficient number of people who are shopping in many retail stores, or dining in restaurants. Consumer spending is restrained.
The same dynamic is playing out in Germany, where citizens are reluctant to return to stores despite a recent (Monday, April 20th) relaxation of restrictions. Even where consumers do return to stores, capacity constraints exist – with limits placed on the number of shoppers allowed in any store, and shoppers asked to maintain certain distances from each other.
The fact is that – whether it is within China, Europe, or the U.S. - consumers will remain largely in “crisis mode” – and will be reluctant to spend money. There will likely be a slow increase in the return to stores, and to retail purchases, over time.
A CBS news poll found that roughly 4 of 5 persons would, if stay-at-home restrictions were lifted in the United States, not get on an airplane, attend a large group event, or go to a restaurant or bar.
Note that consumer spending typically accounts for 70% of U.S. gross domestic product (i.e., GDP, or the total output of goods and services by the U.S. economy).
While unemployment benefits have been deployed to many U.S. citizens and in larger amounts (at least for those able to submit their applications, and to have their applications processed and approved), there is anectodical evidence that some consumers are actually “saving for a rainy day” rather than returning to the cycle of living “paycheck to paycheck.” How widespread this new devotion to having a “personal cash reserve” will be remains to be seen.
Nancy Lazar, an economist with Cornerstone Macro (an economics research firm), expects the U.S. consumer savings rate to increase from about 8% to 11%, taking $500 billion out of consumption of goods and services by the end of 2021.
Any increase in the personal savings rate would be a positive long-term development, as savings (followed by investments) will lead to greater creation of capital. Increased savings would also assist in alleviating the effects of any future economic downturns. However, in the short term increased personal savings places another impediment to the recovery of the U.S. economy over the next few years. 
Second, corporate savings and investments.
When corporations do re-start their business activities, there will be intense pressure upon them to pay off debt that may have accumulated during this economic downturn. And to pay down other debt, and hold onto cash, in order to possess stronger balance sheets.
Corporations know that there may well not be a bail out should another economic downturn occur, especially for corporations who pay out large dividends or engage in stock buybacks. Investors will increasingly be attracted to corporations that have less debt, and more cash available should an economic downturn occur.
Corporate financial officers will be more conservative in deploying capital to either expand production, start new projects, or to acquire other companies.
Third, destruction of many small and some larger business enterprises.
We have seen, and will see, many previously strong small businesses – who often possess little extra capital on their balance sheets, and the inability to quickly raise capital (through equity investments or borrowing) – fail. The CARES Act and the recent supplement to same will assist many small businesses, but not all.
Larger businesses are also at risk. The U.S. government will do what it can, especially to save businesses from failures where our national security would be at risk (aerospace, for example) or where large failures would generate prolonged unemployment (auto manufacturing, for example).
Yet, even then, many large businesses will fail. This economic crisis has accelerated the potential failure of many retailers (such as Neiman Marcus, J.C. Penney) whose profitability was already in a sustained decline.

Will some sectors of the economy suffer very long-lasting effects?
Yes.
One notable sector is commercial real estate – especially office buildings. There is renewed interest among corporate CEO’s in “work-from-home” arrangements. There was a wave of this earlier this century, followed by some “pull-back” into the workplace. But CEO’s have been tracking productivity, and many CEO’s are re-evaluating whether to extend leases for commercial office buildings, or to downsize corporate office space and to have more office employees work from home. Much will depend on whether certain distances will be required to be maintained in office workplaces, compared to the present (as this would both increase demand for space, but result in many more individuals working from home as a means to reduce corporate costs).
If more people work from home, and communicate more frequently with distant colleagues via Zoom or other conferencing applications, reduced demand will exist for eating out (lunches, especially). Also, the frequency of travel to visit customers/associates will likely decline, affecting demand for business airline travel, car rentals, and hotel rooms.

What About the Stock Market?
If there was one puzzle that exists, above all else, it is the tremendous resilience of the U.S. stock market in recent weeks. Despite a U.S. economy in a tailspin at present, overall the U.S. stock market is either reasonably valued, or overvalued, relative to historical averages. In economic circumstances such as the present, usually the U.S. stock market falls in value much more significantly than it has.
There are some explanations. The S&P 500 Index, which accounts for about 80% of the value of U.S. publicly traded stocks, is heavily dominated by technology and health care stocks. For example, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon make up 15% of the value of the S&P 500 Index. Overall, technology stocks make up about one-fourth of the total value of the S&P 500 Index, and technology companies have not been as affected as companies in other industries by the current economic slowdown.
Investors also seem to believe that the U.S. government’s response to the economic downturn has been robust. It appears that investors still might be over-optimistic, at least in my view.

What About Interest Rates?
The absolute toughest job today, from the standpoint of an investment adviser, is attempting to find fixed income investments that possess low risk levels but provide decent returns. Simply speaking, there has been a rush to safety, which has driven down interest rates to historically low levels.
What is the future of interest rates? There is a lot of speculation that interest rates will go even lower, and that negative yields will occur for U.S. Treasury notes and bonds. But, I have always found predicting the future of interest rates to be a fool’s folly.

What Should I, as an Investor, Do Now?
As always, stay the course.
My clients have portfolios that are designed to achieve their long-term financial goals. Through the process of strategic asset allocation, and a disciplined approach to portfolio rebalancing, each of my clients has a “plan” – regardless of what the capital markets do in the future.
Long ago I “stress tested” my clients’ portfolios, projecting whether they would endure should a great depression occurred. The payoff for these past practices exists today, and will endure into the future.

Ron, What Keeps You Up at Night?
Aside from our family’s new dog, Roxie, who does a remarkably good job at waking me at odd hours of the night …
I worry about the impact of COVID-19 upon today’s youth, and by that I mean anyone from about age 6 to age 40. Many of these individuals experienced 9/11, followed by the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-9, and now this COVID-19 pandemic and severe economic recession (or depression). I worry about the long-term impact of these crises upon them. I worry about the higher debt burdens (both personal and governmental) those in these generations must now endure.
I worry about those who are unable to feed their families. Food banks help, but many food banks are reporting shortages. Visit https://www.feedingamerica.org/find-your-local-foodbank to find your local food bank, and to help them out.
I worry about the mental health of others. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn have negatively affected many people’s mental health. Many people are suffering from social isolation, job losses and the accompanying negative emotional responses to same, and high feelings of anxiety. Fear exists … about contracting COVID-19, about loved ones’ and friends’ contracting COVID-19 (or who have already contracted it). And fear exists about each person’s short-term, and long-term, personal financial stability. All of this may lead increased depression, anxiety, distress, and low self-esteem (from job losses, especially), and may lead to higher rates of substance use disorder and suicide.
This is a time … for resilience, as we have not seen in many years. This is a time to support each other, even though “reaching out” may be virtually, or remotely. This is a time for compassion, empathy, and understanding. And this is a time when those who are fortunate, to contribute to assist those in our communities who are less fortunate. 
If you have questions, please feel free to contact me.
Ron A. Rhoades, JD, CFP®
Personal Financial Advisor
Scholar Financial, a fee-only investment advisory firm
The Power of Trust
Email (for clients and prospective clients):    Ron@ScholarFinancial.com
Email (for students and all others):                Ron.Rhoades@wku.edu

Friday, April 10, 2020

A Story of Spirit, in a Time of Disruption: "Big Red" - WKU's College Mascot - Makes the Final Four!

In a world where sporting events have largely been canceled, college spirit can remain strong. As evidenced by unlikely rise of "Big Red" - Western Kentucky University's beloved mascot, to the "Final Four" of the SiriusXM Mascot competition, which began earlier this week and concludes next week.


Western Kentucky's "Big Red" was not even originally in the competition, when the bracket organizers selected 64 college mascots to participate. But, as a result of tremendous outpouring of support from its fans, Big Red was permitted to challenge the #16 seed, the Ole Miss Rebels, in a "play-in game."

Fans of the 64 teams were initially stunned. They couldn't believe that a mascot - the form of which they couldn't even identify as a person or animal - would even be allowed in the competition. Fans of other teams' mascots have commented:

.... "What the hell is it? Grimace's red cousin?"
.... "What is it? Elmo's bigger cousin?" 
.... "This due is literally a red circle lol how long did it take to come up with that? not even the best mascot in Kentucky"
.... "Big Red Booger"

"Big Red" is the mascot of Western Kentucky University's sports teams, the "Hilltoppers" and "Lady Toppers. The mascot can best be described as a red, furry, fun-loving blob. Inside the costume is actually a senior student at WKU - a top student whose name is only revealed when, at graduation, the student wears Big Red's gloves during commencement proceedings. Big Red not only supports the athletics teams at Western Kentucky University, but he also aids other student organizations at WKU, and makes numerous visits to high schools and community events to spread the Spirit of WKU.



Despite the disbelief from other college's fans that Big Red would even be included in the competition, the incredible happened. Western Kentucky University's Big Red, from a regional state university with only 17,000 students, "topped" - in successive rounds of voting - these five much larger SEC and ACC schools:

  • Ole Miss' Tony the Landshark;
  • #1 seed LSU's Mike the Tiger;
  • Auburn's Aubie the Tiger;
  • Ga. Tech's Buzz the Yellow Jacket; and
  • Tennessee's Smokey
With the support of Big Red's loving fans - students, alumni, and more - and including hometown band Cage The Elephant - Big Red conquered these "Power Five" teams - with four of the contests fairly close, and only one in which Big Red had a significant lead in the final vote tally.

The impact on students, all of whom have suffered disruptions due to the shift from in-person to online classes (due to COVID-19) this Spring, has been incredible. As Stephanie Martin, one alumnus, wrote: "During one of our most challenging times in @wku history, our biggest cheerleader continues to unit us & bring smiles our way! Thank you @WKUBigRed! Toppers are resilient! #TogetherWKU."

To encourage student participation even further, another recent WKU alum raised the stakes. Matthew Wine offered: " If @CageTheElephant helps @WKUBigRed win the @SXMCollege Mascot Tournament, I will give a random Cage fan 2 tickets to a Cage concert."



On Monday, April 13th, "Big Red" faces off against No. 6 seed Oklahoma's Sooner Schooner in the first round of the Final Four competition.

If Big Red wins again, it will face either Wisconsin or BYU with the SiriusXM Mascot Championship on the line.

Can Big Red pull off yet another upset? Tune in Monday evening, to find out!

Saturday, April 4, 2020

My 9th Special Update on the Coronavirus, the Economy, and the Capital Markets

Scholar Financial’s 9th Special Update on the Coronavirus, the Economy, and the Capital Markets

April 3, 2020

The Good (Health and Other) News

Before exploring the impact of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) on the economy, and the capital markets, please permit me to share some “potential good news”:

  • Scores of currently available drugs are being tested to reduce the symptoms of COVID-19. Some are showing remarkable results, at least anecdotally. Research studies currently underway will tell us more. Such medications may reduce the severity of the symptoms, lessen mortality rates, and lead to speedier recovery from the illness by individuals.

  • At least six, and possibly more, vaccines are in development. At least one is already in human trials (of which there are least three stages – one for safety; the other two stages for efficacy). Johnson & Johnson, and other companies, are rapidly scaling up their vaccine manufacturing capabilities. At best, however, the first batches of an approved vaccine would be ready by early 2021 – and that is if the testing of their most promising vaccine candidate goes well. (Note, however, that often potential vaccines fail during the phases of testing; few vaccines are found to be both safe and effective.)

  • Pandemics end when a sufficient number of people have developed immunity, either by recovering from the virus or due to vaccination. But the effect of pandemics can be lessened through effective suppression techniques (social distancing), followed by mitigation (massive testing and tracing efforts).

  • The Cleveland Clinic has developed a simple device that can be 3D printed to double the use of each ventilator. They are already being delivered and put to use.

  • Ten million U.S. citizens filed for unemployment benefits over the past two weeks. And many more are expected to file in the future. There is naturally a backlog in processing this unprecedented number of claims, but the money will start flowing. (If anyone you know has lost employment, including independent contractors, they should seek to file for unemployment benefits online.)

  • Kindness is trending. Stories of generosity, compassion, and gratitude are everywhere.
  • In most parts of the United States, the “curve” is not yet flattening. Exponential rises in the number of cases are still being reported. Yet (hopefully) the social isolation measures adopted over the past two weeks or so will lead to “flattening the curve” soon – as there is a time lag between suppression efforts and their impact on the number of new cases.

For a view of the "curves" by country, see the Financial Times chart.

THE BAD (ECONOMIC) NEWS

The world is beginning to realize the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. We rightly fear what may be coming. We don’t know how bad it will be. But, at least in many parts of the United States, we are over the “denial” phase. (Many are still in the grief phase, others remain in the “fear” phase, which is natural. Others have moved on to the “let’s do something constructive phase.”)

Millions of Americans are still working, through the lockdown, to deliver healthcare as well as other essential goods and services.

Others – mostly those from higher-earning occupations (mostly office workers) – are able to work from home.

Yet many others are not working at all. They lack any income. With well over half of Americans living from paycheck to paycheck, with little or no savings, the impact upon those Americans unable to work is severe. These Americans – of which there are tens of millions – are not able to pay rent or make mortgage payments, and often are unable to afford food.

As more and more businesses close, due to lack of demand for their goods and services, and/or their inability to produce goods due to mandated stay-at-home orders, more Americans will be unemployed. By May of 2020 we will likely reach a level of unemployment in the United States  that is greater than that seen in the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-2009, and perhaps much higher.

Instead of food lines, we currently have deliveries of food. Often to school-age children, some of whom received their most nutritional meals of the day at school. But food deliveries will need to further expand. Support your local food bank.

It is likely that the U.S. economy will contract in the first half of this year by a factor many times the contraction seen in 2008-9. Technically, “gross domestic product” (“GDP”) in the U.S. could fall this calendar quarter by 30% to 50% below the peak seen in early January 2020. The effects of this huge decline in economic activity could be offset - to a large degree – by the massive federal government stimulus underway.

What is unknown is how fast the rebound will be. Much is dependent upon our ability to suppress the COVID-19 virus via social distancing. Then it depends on keeping widespread outbreaks of the COVID-19 virus from re-occurring, via extensive testing, tracking down those who might have been exposed, and quarantining those individuals.

THE COVID-19 VIRUS PANDEMIC HAS LED TO AN ECONOMIC SITUATION WHICH THE MODERN FINANCIAL SYSTEM HAS NEVER EXPERIENCED.

There are many moving parts at work, in trying for forecast the future of the U.S. and world economy. Predictions of what may occur in the future are dependent on how these parts interrelate, as well has governmental actions and how fast we “win the war” against this coronavirus.

Unlike the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-9, in which the financial and economic crisis led to huge unemployment, here we have huge unemployment (caused by a health care crisis) leading to a large economic crisis.

We have experienced both a huge shock to the demand for goods, as well as to demand for many services. And a huge shock to the ability to supply many goods, as manufacturers have been forced to close.

Into this environment intrude governments. Around the western world, governments are no longer trusting capitalism. They are unwilling to let companies fail, for fear (rightfully so, in some cases) that their nations’ economies will suffer more greatly, or that their nations’ national security could be put at risk.

Central banks around the world, by their measures taken this year, now own about one-third of all outstanding debt in the public markets. This has never occurred before. Never, ever.

The U.S. Federal Reserve balance sheet has ballooned from $3.5 trillion in assets to $5.2 trillion in assets, and it may go up to $10 trillion. 

The Federal Reserve, now backstopped by the U.S. Treasury as a result of the CARES Act recently signed into law, has implemented a ton of programs, including:
  • ·      PDCF                Primary Dealer Credit Facility
  • ·      MMLF              Money Market Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility
  • ·      CFPP                Commercial Paper Funding Facility
  • ·      MSBLP             Main Street Business Lending Program
  • ·      PMCCF             Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility
  • ·      SMCCF             Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility
  • ·      TALF3              Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility
Much of these asset (bond) purchases are being done to shore up the banking system. If the value of fixed income assets fall, banks could fail in large numbers, so the Federal Reserve is propping up asset values by large purchases. 

Capital infusions into large corporations are also authorized, as well as loans. The U.S. government is doing a great deal to ensure that larger corporations, especially those in strategically important industries, don’t fail.

But the huge purchases of fixed income assets by the Federal Reserve, and the potential for capital infusions into large corporations, have no doubt led to distortions in pricing. The prices of bonds should be much lower currently, given the fact that the level of unemployment in the United States is likely to go to a level higher than that seen in the Great Depression – when it hit around 25% by some measurements.

More government interventions will occur within the next few months. To support those who are unemployed. To further support corporations large and small, to try to prevent them from filing bankruptcy. And to otherwise stimulate the economy.

What will occur as we begin to get “back to work” after our actions to fight COVID-19 permit us to do so? At that time the U.S. government, in order to “jump start” the economy, must commit to a large fiscal stimulus via infrastructure spending and other government spending. Already both the Democrats in the U.S. Congress and the White House are pressing for such to occur, although I don’t anticipate an infrastructure spending bill until late 2020, at the earliest.

What is concerning is the continued perception by many that the U.S. economy will quickly recover. There are reasons to suggest this may not happen. First, until COVID-19 is conquered through vaccinations, employers will fear expanding production. Second, there will be a strong rebound in employment as factories and many businesses reopen, but we are talking about unemployment going from 15%-25%, down to perhaps 10% or so. I anticipate that unemployment will remain in the high single digits through 2021, at least. It just takes time for new businesses to be formed, and businesses to expand, after some many businesses have shuttered their doors permanently. And business expansion will be muted as corporate executives worry about paying down debt, as well as saving their cash for the next downturn.

INFLATION – AND DEFLATION – FEARS.

The expansion of the Federal Reserve balance sheet, leading to money creation – together with the huge decline in the prices of most commodities in recent weeks (which prices will rebound once the global economy begins to recover) - should lead to significant inflation this Fall, or next year, or the year thereafter. The 20-year U.S. Treasury Inflation-Protected Security is trading with a yield of negative 15 basis points (-0.15%), indicating a significant fear of inflation exists, although some of the low yields seen results from a flight to safety.

Over the last two weeks, ten million Americans filed for unemployment. Before that, never had there been a week in which more than 650,000 Americans filed for unemployment. Expect many millions more to file for unemployment in the coming weeks.

The $2.2 trillion fiscal stimulus contained in the CARES Act, passed by the U.S. Congress on Friday, March 27, 2020, has been authorized to be spent. But it will take time to get the money into the economy. How quickly individuals and businesses can receive and make use of the funds depends on program design and the efficiency of relief delivery. Fortunately, and unlike what we saw in the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-9, the U.S. government is trying to get the money actually out into the economy, rather than just have the money sit on the books of banks.

After the recovery begins, it is very possible that many corporations, and people, may seek to save more money in the future, given the economic shock we are experiencing now. This may lower demand for goods and services, for years to come. And lower investments in new plants and equipment by corporations. And, all of this may perhaps lower the inflation threat, due to reduced demand for goods and services.

The official level of U.S. government debt is likely to go from $22 trillion early this year to $30 trillion by the end of 2021. (The unofficial federal debt level, which takes into account future unfunded obligations, is much higher.) As a result, the supply of debt will be much larger, and if not offset by much higher savings rates (fueling demand for bond purchases) this could trigger higher interest rates in the future.

Still, once the economy gets going again, in a few years (hopefully), higher inflation will likely occur, and such higher inflation will likely be tolerated by the Federal Reserve. Why? Because it lowers the value of long-term debt, such as that issued by the U.S. government. Rather than have an inflation target of 2.0% to 2.5%, the Federal Reserve may be willing to accept an inflation rate of 3.0% to 3.5% in the future before it intervenes to halt inflation.

Yet, higher inflation is not guaranteed. In fact, deflation – the falling of prices – remains a concern over the shorter term. Economists know that deflation is much worse than inflation. It causes the cost of debt to increase over time. It stifles demand for goods, for potential purchases delay their purchases in hopes of ever-lower prices. During the Great Depression the United States suffered from a significant dose of deflation.

Simply put, economists are trying to model all of these factors, and many others. But this economy, in a modern financial world where massive government fiscal and monetary interventions occur, and where a pandemic exists, has never been seen before (in its totality). Hence, we don’t know what the larger threat is – deflation or inflation.

It is very difficult to make economic predictions. It is fairly certain that the U.S. economy will be experiencing a very, very significant downturn. It is somewhat certain that some rebound in the U.S. economy will occur within the next 2-3 years. But the extent of that rebound is largely uncertain, as is the future direction of interest rates, inflation, or deflation.

But we can ask, what can we do if deflation occurs? Individuals should be, and remain, debt-free. In such an environment, own high-quality, investment-grade fixed income investments, such as CDs, AAA- and AA-rated municipal bonds, and some very-highly-rated corporate bonds. Don’t “stretch” for yield by purchasing longer-maturity or lower-credit-quality fixed income investments. Buy equities when valuation levels are significantly lower than their median levels.

And what asset classes would likely do better, from an ownership perspective, if inflation rears its ugly head, instead?
  •          TIPS (“Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities”);
  •      Short-term high-quality debt, such as CDs, AAA- and AA-rated municipal bonds, and some very-highly-rated corporate bonds;
  •      REITs – via highly diversified low-cost mutual funds; and
  •      Equities (i.e., stocks) … maybe. (I’ll explain in the next section.) 

WHAT ABOUT STOCKS – IF INFLATION OCCURS?

There are many theories present as to whether stocks will be a good hedge against inflation in the future. Stocks are generally perceived to be a hedge against inflation (as revenues increase, driving earnings higher; also, values of assets held by corporations generally increase). However, stock prices are often affected by other concerns.

One of these concerns is whether stock buy-backs will continue. Since 2011, U.S. corporations have been the major purchasers of their own stocks. All other purchasers of equities pale in their purchases of U.S. stocks, by comparison.

What if, after this economic crisis, U.S. corporations save cash, rather than use it to fund buybacks, in order to maintain a higher safety net? Already there have been calls by the public, by economists, and among makers of public policy to just “let those corporations who did all these stock buybacks fail,” rather than have the federal government rescue them. In addition, many corporations possessed high debt levels before this all began, and those that survive will possess even higher debt levels. Corporations will desire to reduce their leverage, and public pressure will occur on American business to do just that – to minimize the need for future corporate bailouts.

Another concern is lack of economic growth. The growing debt burdens – both U.S. government, state and local government, and individual – spurred much higher as a result of the economic crisis – may serve to re-direct monies that would have been invested in stocks, and instead see those monies allocated to interest payments and deleveraging (i.e., reducing the principal amount of debt).

And still another concern is whether stocks are “fairly valued” or over-valued or under-valued.

THE EQUITIES VALUATION CONCERN.

Another concern for stocks is that, by some measures, U.S. stocks are not yet “cheap.” U.S. stocks were significantly overvalued by mid-January 2020, and the recent decline in stock values may have made them only more affordable.

For example, the “Warren Buffet Indicator,” which measures the total market cap of U.S. stocks to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), stands at 113.8% as of April 3, 2020 (close of the markets). A “fairly valued U.S. stock market” exists at a 100% level. Since GDP in the U.S. is likely to fall significantly in the next month or two, and the current calculation does not take into account this anticipated fall, the Warren Buffet Indicator may in fact today signal an even more significantly overvalued U.S. stock market.

Another measure is the Shiller CAPE10, which levelizes the earnings of the S&P 500® Index over the past 10 years, with adjustments to earnings undertaken for inflation. The Shiller CAPE10 ratio for the S&P 500® Index has fallen from about 32 to 23.49 (as of market close on Friday, April 3rd). But this valuation level remains far above its long-term median value (1871 to present) of 15.77. However, the current value is closer (but still above) its median value of 20.4 seen for the period 1970 to present (i.e., the past 50 years), and changes in accounting standards seen about 20 years ago suggest that a higher Shiller CAPE10 median might be justified. Yet, even then, by the Shiller CAPE10 measure, U.S. large company stocks are at best fairly valued, and are not undervalued.

Looking deeper into U.S. stock asset classes, using price-book ratios since 1978 for the Russell indexes, shows us a different story. By my own proprietary calculations, U.S. large company stocks are fairly valued; such stocks represent about 80% of the total value of the U.S. stock market.

Yet, as of the Thursday, April 2, 2020 market close, U.S. large cap growth stocks remain 30% to 55% overvalued, despite the recent stock market downturn. At the same time, undervaluations occur in U.S. large cap value stocks, U.S. small cap growth stocks, U.S. small cap (core or balanced) stocks, and U.S. small cap value stocks – using price-to-book ratios. U.S. small-cap value stocks appear the most undervalued, being in the range of 30% to 45% undervalued by my estimates.

I would caution, however, that any such valuation models are far from perfect. Estimates of undervaluation are just that – estimates. And simply because U.S. small cap value stocks are undervalued does not mean that they might not fall further. In fact, a further fall in value of U.S. small cap value stocks – by 20% - would bring valuation levels (as measured by price-book values, only) to their 1979 levels (the first year for which such data for Russell indexes is available, which year also marked a low point in the last 70 years of U.S. stock market valuations, generally).

Additionally, during the 1929-1932 stock market downturn (at the beginning of the Great Depression), U.S. small cap value stocks fell by about 90% in value. By comparison, U.S. large company stocks fell by only 80% in value. Hopefully, such a huge drop won’t occur. And there is reason to believe it will not, in large part because the levers of our economy – monetary and fiscal policy – are much better understood today by policy makers than ninety years ago, and there is certainly a willingness to use such levers.

Compared to international equities, the average price-book ratio for U.S. large company stocks remains higher than the price-book ratios for stocks in Europe, Japan, and emerging markets by a significant margin. This, and other valuation metrics, indicate that expected returns over the next 10 years in emerging markets (China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, etc.) stocks are the highest, followed by expected returns in foreign developed markets (Europe, Japan, Australia, etc.). (Some of the expected returns of foreign stocks are projected to occur by a fall in the U.S. dollar relative to other currencies.) U.S. small company stocks possess lower expected returns compared to international stocks. And U.S. large company stocks possess even lower expected returns.

In all equities markets, however, value stocks are expected to outperform growth stocks over the next ten years.

Again, a word of caution. These returns expectations have a lot of assumptions, such as mean reversion (which may or may not occur). As always, returns are not guaranteed.


PORTFOLIO MOVES FOR THE FORESEEABLE FUTURE.

If you are still in the process of saving (from employment), continue to add to your 401(k) or IRA if at all possible. With valuation levels lower than they were, for equities, you will be buying at cheaper values.

If you are in retirement, and pulling money out of your portfolio, don’t panic. As I explained in a prior “Special Update,” expected returns for equities are higher, as stock valuation levels have drifted lower. The amounts projected to be withdrawn from your portfolio are not substantially different, provided you possess a reasonable amount of fixed-income investments (as my clients do).

As always, stick with a disciplined approach. Adopt a strategic asset allocation for the long term. Rebalance when opportunities arise. (For my clients, I am monitoring your portfolios for the opportune times.) This disciplined process forces you to “buy low, sell high” – never knowing, of course, if the market values go lower or higher. For no one has a consistently working crystal ball.

For those who have not previously considered it, the SWAN ETF, which is approximately 90% U.S. Treasury securities (bonds) with an average duration about equal to that of a 10-year U.S. Treasury bond, and about 10% call options on the S&P 500® Index, can be utilized to guard against “Great Depression” risk. This exchange-traded fund, which has an annual expense ratio of 0.49%, does possess some downside risk – perhaps a maximum of about 25% to 30%. The downside risk of the SWAN ETF is greater than I estimated last year, due to the significant decline in interest rates since then. If the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond was to rise from current levels, by 3%, the value of such a bond would fall by about 25%.

While a 25% to 30% decline in the value of this ETF is unlikely, such might occur if both the in-the-money call options the ETF holds fell in value to zero with a significant stock market decline, while at the same time U.S. Treasury yields significantly rise (as illustrated above) over a short period of time. Such a significant rise in U.S. Treasury yields could occur as the economy recovers, and if inflation raises its ugly head. As yields increase, bond prices fall.

The SWAN ETF also possesses upside potential in a rising stock market environment. It will not fully participate in the rise of the S&P 500® Index, but rather will participate in a significant portion of such gains. The lower the S&P 500® Index falls in value, the greater the upside potential in the SWAN ETF over subsequent time periods.

I now anticipate that, over a 10-year period, the SWAN ETF is likely to produce a 3.5% to 4.5% average annualized return, though some years will have negative returns and others more positive returns. The returns could be much higher over the next ten years, depending on market volatility. Still, this unique exchange-traded fund has the potential to reduce the risk of a portfolio, should the stock market fall like it did in 1929-1932. The SWAN ETF can, in essence, help guard a portfolio against the impact of the Great Depression, while at the same time providing long-term (10-year or greater) returns that are likely significantly above the returns seen in high-quality fixed income investments.

IN CONCLUSION.

I do believe the U.S. economy will be dealt a significant blow, beyond what it has already experienced.

It is altogether possible that the stock markets are not fully incorporating the risk of same occurring. Still, predicting stock market movements over the short term remains a fool’s game. Attempts to predict the “low point” or “high point” of any market movements are rarely, rarely successful.

Instead of playing such a game, stick with the discipline of strategic asset allocation and rebalancing, which has worked, and will continue to work, over the long term. Over time I have structured my clients’ portfolios to endure over the long term, however the situation unfolds. In order to secure the higher long-term returns necessary to outperform inflation, and to achieve your goals, means accepting the risk of substantial market downturns.

(Though, after 2000-2002, 2007-2009, and now 2020, I wish they didn’t occur so often!)

The future of the U.S. economy, and to a degree the future returns seen in the capital markets, still depends on our collective ability to suppress the COVID-19 virus, and then get back to work. The longer the need for social distancing (and “stay-at-home”) lasts, the greater the negative impact on the economy.


If you have questions or concerns, or just desire to talk, please drop me a line or give me a call.

All my best. – Ron

Ron A. Rhoades, JD, CFP®
Personal Financial Advisor
Scholar Financial

Email (preferred) (for clients and potential clients): Ron@ScholarFinancial.com

Email (preferred) (for students and all others): Ron.Rhoades@wku.edu

Text / Cell: 352.228.1672