Broker Check

February 2020 Newsletter - This Too Shall Pass

February 15, 2020

Dear First Mates,

This. Too. Shall. Pass.

These four powerful words are a mantra of clients traveling aboard The WealthPlan LLC. I urge you to repeat (and keep repeating) these words to those you care about when faced with whatever “apocalypse du jour” is being publicized in the media. The recent crisis I’m speaking of  is the outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus in China.

As I write this, the S&P 500 Total Return index is down around 3.2% year to date. We have been invited by financial media to suspect that the blended value of 500 of the largest, best financed, most profitable businesses in America and the world has “lost” 3.2% – with more “losses” to come.

Permit me to doubt this, and to suggest that you – as goal-focused long-term investors – join me in doubting it. I do not claim to have any idea how far this outbreak will spread, nor how many lives it will claim, before it is brought under control.

I’m reasonably certain that many (or perhaps most) of the world’s leading virologists and epidemiologists are working on it, and I believe that their efforts will ultimately succeed. Clearly, this is my personal opinion.

But if the rich history of similar outbreaks in this century is any guide, this would seem to be a reasonable hypothesis. I draw your attention to:

  • SARS in 2003-04, also originating in China 
  • The bird flu epidemic in 2005-2006
  • In 2009, a new strain of swine flu
  • The Ebola outbreak in the autumn of 2014
  • The mosquito-borne Zika virus outbreak in 2016-17

Without belaboring the point: the super-spreader of SARS – a fish seller – checked into a hospital in Guangzhou on January 31, 2003, basically infecting the whole staff. The epidemic exploded from there.

On that first day of the litany of epidemics cited above, the S&P 500 closed at 855.70. Seventeen years and six epidemics later (including the current one), this past Friday the Index closed fairly close to four times higher. I’m confident that you see where I’m going with this.

As always, I welcome your inquiries around this issue. In the meantime, I think the most helpful – and certainly most heartfelt – investment advice I can offer would be that you turn off the television set. This seems to be a recurring theme in my recent newsletters.

P.S. The history of the SARS epidemic, and of most if not all the others before this one, is very well documented by Wikipedia. The closing level of the S&P 500 on 1/31/2003 is from Standard & Poor’s, as reported by Yahoo Finance. Year to date data from the S&P 500 Total Return Index is provided courtesy of YCharts data as of 2/26/2020.