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A bull's conundrum: Rally in stocks is built on staying inside

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 4/7/2020 Sarah Ponczek and Katherine Greifeld

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Video by CNBC

The S&P 500 surged Monday after New York coronavirus fatalities declined for the first time, while Italy and Spain reported the fewest deaths in more than two weeks. To Peter Cecchini, investors aren’t thinking clearly enough about what it all means.

As the Cantor Fitzgerald strategist sees it, a lower death rate suggests self-isolation and staying indoors are working. While obviously the best possible news for society, its meaning for markets comes with important caveats, among them the economic cost of prolonging the lockdown.

“What the takeaway should be is that we need to continue this policy, perhaps for even longer than we originally thought,” Cecchini said. “I want to be as optimistic as the next guy about this, but I think we need to be realistic.”

Over and over during the outbreak it has been shown how relief in stocks reflects a different calculus than relief in the real world. Markets look forward and backward to a greater degree than most human minds, balancing guesses about a sometimes-distant future with all the pain already priced in. Both considerations can cause the actions of investors to seem cold blooded at times, particularly when viewed through narrow windows.

a screenshot of a video game: Stocks gain amid signs coronavirus cases are leveling off © Bloomberg Stocks gain amid signs coronavirus cases are leveling off

Right now, some worry, traders are getting ahead of themselves. Shelter-in-place guidelines have already wrecked havoc on retail spending and sparked the biggest plummet in U.S. employment since the last recession. Still to come is a reckoning for debt-laden corporate issuers with ratings at risk.

“The lock-down is economically ruinous -- make no mistake about it,” wrote Charles Dumas at the TS Lombard research shop. “We have a stock market in denial, very far from any sign of capitulation. The second leg down of this bear looks as if it will be worse than the first.”

Of course, confidently ascribing any reason for optimism, or pessimism for that matter, has been a fool’s errand in a stock market swinging 5% a day. Forceful sell-offs are met the next day with a strong rallies, and vice versa. Feedback loops are everywhere -- including the bullish possibility that successfully arresting the death rate will put an early end to the most drastic social-distancing protocols.

But with the S&P 500 extending its gain from the March 23 bottom to 17%, and many attributing the strength to signs of the virus’s spread slowing in hot spots around the globe, the bull case is coming under scrutiny. If virus cases are leveling off, it’s because social distancing is working. The longer people have to remain in their homes, the longer businesses remain shuttered. It’s a conundrum policy makers are speaking to.

A diminished fatality rate is “hopeful, but it’s also inconclusive, and it still depends on what we do,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at his Monday news conference. “These models all have a coefficient of ‘what we do,’ and how successful we are at social distancing etc., and from our decision-making point of view, it doesn’t really mater if we hit a plateau or not, because you have to do the same thing. If we are plateauing, we are plateauing at a very high level.”

a close up of text on a black background: VIX at lowest level in weeks yet still elevated © Bloomberg VIX at lowest level in weeks yet still elevated

Efforts to interpret the rally were everywhere on Wall Street. Strategists at JPMorgan Chase & Co. recommended trading on what looks to be close to “a favorable inflection” for the spread of the coronavirus. Quantitative and derivatives strategists including Shawn Quigg and Marko Kolanovic suggested clients position for a “sharp short squeeze” in value stocks.

“With the COVID-19 spread now potentially at an inflection point, the beginning of an economic restart may be closer than anticipated, along with a market trough,” they wrote in a note to clients Monday.

Peter Tchir at Academy Securities says economic headlines are irrelevant when stacked up against the progression of the virus. To Evercore ISI’s Dennis Debusschere, there’s a possibility that positive stories and headlines -- “human ingenuity” as he calls is -- could extend the rally, possibly even sending the S&P 500 to 2,800 (a 25% advance from the March lows).

The impediment to the optimism? “At some point we will actually have to have a solution,” Debusschere said.

The stock market looks to be anticipating an end to social distancing policies in June and a trough in economic growth in the third quarter, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. Strategists led by Gina Martin Adams found that in the case of shorter-than-average recessions, stocks bottom a median 156 days before the end of the economic contraction.

The team has turned to monitoring coronavirus forecasting tools, including the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) model, for signals on when virus cases may peak and the economy be able to open back up. Social distancing practices likely won’t end until there’s an all clear for the spread of the virus in the U.S.

“Market volatility is likely here to stay, as news of increasing infections competes with government intervention to keep businesses and individuals solvent for longer,” wrote Martin Adams. “Health experts remain unsure if a second wave will emerge at some point, starting the whole social-distancing dance -- and market volatility -- all over again.”

The sheer difficulty of re-opening economies with the risk of reintroducing a threat to human health has been on display in countries like Japan and Singapore, where case counts have accelerated after earlier success in containment. For strategists at Bespoke Investment Group, such instances suggest “a return to normalcy won’t be as easy as flicking a switch.” In a note to clients, they added, “the risk profile of re-opening is significantly more nuanced and fraught than the decision to close down.”

As the S&P 500 rose Monday to just about match the highest level in three weeks, the VIX fell for a third day to 44, the lowest since March 6 and roughly half its peak level of 85. Still, it’s in part due to this virtuous circle of economies remaining closed that volatility will persist, according to JJ Kinahan, the chief market strategist at TD Ameritrade.

“It’s the bad circle of life,” Kinahan said by phone. “We have these orders in place until the end of April for most areas of the country. Well, that could easily become the end of May really quickly.”

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