Friday, April 3, 2020

Projecting Deaths from Covid-19


In my blog on Covid-19 last week (here), I suggested we could use rates of reported cases per million of population to standardize numbers across countries and gauge the trajectory of infections based on those under the gun for a longer period. Thursday, April 2, we recorded the one-millionth case, and the official death toll crossed 50,000. That day alone the world recorded nearly 6,000 deaths and almost 80,000 new cases.

Graph: Covid-19 Reported Cases per Million Population

 The chart above is an update of the one I prepared last week. It shows the growth in cases per million for Italy, Germany, and the U.S. During the week, Italy’s rate has moderated. Germany, reaping the benefits of significant early testing, has dropped below the rate experienced by Italy at the same equivalent period. The only positive spin for the U.S. is that it could be worse; we could track Spain (see below).

Same chart with Spain added


What can we learn from Germany and Spain?

Let me be clear: I don’t know what’s going on. I am speculating based on news stories and reported statistics. The number of reported cases per million of population became significant for Germany about a week after Italy (and at the same time as Spain). Germany reacted by shutting down sports and other large gatherings and instituted widespread testing. Spain allowed a rally of 120,000 people in Madrid to celebrate Women’s Day on March 8[i] (Day 3 on the above chart).

While the huge gatherings in Spain had an effect, the biggest difference was the speed in which testing rolled out. Spain, like the U.S. required central approval before administering a test. Germany’s s decentralized system experienced no such roadblocks. The result is Germany tested sooner and more widely, identifying a larger percentage of the infected earlier in their infection. This allowed for quicker quarantining of the infected, reducing exposure.

There are also cultural differences between Germans and Spaniards. Germans have a strong form of government and tend to be rule-followers. That’s not the case in Spain, whose central government let a week or more go by before they imposed the same social distancing requirements as Germany. Spaniards did not take the matter seriously until people started dying in large numbers. By then it was too late to stop the first acceleration of cases we see illustrated in the graph above.

With a country-wide lockdown enforced by police with roadblocks and drones, and nationalization of private hospitals, Spain has clamped down. Its trajectory will eventually decrease, but the delay will cost tens of thousands of lives.

What of the U.S.? Are they just trying to scare us with the projections of 100,000 to 240,000 U.S. dead?

Compared to Germany and Spain, the U.S. had an additional week’s time to prepare for the Covid-19 onslaught. Our federal government pissed it away, leaders convincing themselves that we had taken all the measures we needed by shutting our borders to those arriving from infected areas of China.

Unlike Germany, where the federal government acted deliberately, our federal government has been reluctant to exert control, leaving it up to states and municipalities to respond as they see fit. This has led to a rolling set of policies that react to local conditions after the problem has already grown large. That’s too late to dampen the curve quickly. Even today, when the positive effects of social distancing are understood, states like Florida still allow church services, which they deem essential services[ii].

This nonuniform response will continue to lead to rising case numbers. The same Florida governor who refused to close beaches during Spring Break issued a requirement for those travelling from New York to self-quarantine for fourteen days,[iii] as though the virus weren’t already spreading in his state.

So yes, given the spectacularly slow response by many state and local governments, I suspect health officials are trying to scare us into complying with requests/demands to stay at home. We’re doing much better than Spain, but not nearly as well as Germany. As it stands now, we’re not even matching Italy.

But isn’t the death rate for Covid-19 under 1%?

Does that mean we’ll have 10 to 25 million people infected? Later today, I project, we’ll exceed a quarter of a million people reported infected in the U.S. With all the social distancing ten million or twenty-five million seems unlikely in the near term. It’s unclear what assumptions the studies used to arrive at their death figures.[iv] Much depends on the duration covered, policies employed (and followed), and the death rates assumed.

The studies that showed death rates below 1% were based on data from China, which has come under question based in part on the number of urns being shipped to Wuhan province.[v] [vi]

What we do and don’t know about death rates.

The only way to know the mortality rate for a disease is to test everyone to determine who had the disease and divide that number into those who died from the disease. In fact, we’ll never know the factual answer. Some very smart people with sophisticated models will make their best estimates, which is where the 100,000 to 240,000 deaths came from.

What we know as of April 2, 2020

Excluding China, there have been 49,848 reported deaths and 933,344 reported cases of Covid-19. That’s a death rate of 5.3%. That’s low, because even if there were no more reported cases, we still expect more of those already infected to die.

An early study showed that on average two weeks passed between onset of first symptom and death. For a SWAG (some wild-assed guess), let’s assume the average reported case occurs seven days after the first symptom. If the 14-day period from first symptom to death holds up, then reported deaths came from the population whose illnesses were reported before March 26. Again removing China from the reported cases, that leaves nearly 50,000 worldwide deaths arising from 390,000 reported cases. That ratio is 12.8%!

Is that possible? Italy’s current death rate is 12.07% of reported cases. Spain, which started a week later than Italy, is already up to 9.2%.

But Germany has a 1.3%. rate. The lower rate is because the denominator includes many “healthy” sick discovered as part of Germany’s more extensive testing. Most of these additional individuals will recover (lowering the mortality rate compared to countries who didn’t know these types of individuals were ill).

Our testing rates are more comparable to Italy than to Germany, and so of those already reported, we should expect a higher mortality. (We’re already reached 2.5% and it’s climbing.) For us, experiencing 100,000 deaths may result from as few as one million reported cases—and we have already reached 250,000 cases.

It’s up to each of us.

Our previous actions, or lack thereof, have baked in the number of cases of Covid-19 the U.S. will experience over the next week to two weeks. What happens after mid-April depends on how each of us acts. Will you be responsible, or will your behavior kill others?

Your choice.
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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. False Bottom, the sixth and most recent novel in the series is set in the Boston area. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The COVID-19 Trajectory


On Thursday, March 26, the United States took over the top spot for the number of reported COVID-19 cases, exceeding 85,000. It’s important to recognize that reported cases are an inaccurate proxy for actual cases. Some countries may deliberately under-report their rate of infection. Some countries do more testing than others. Regardless of the statistic’s flaws, it’s what we have available.

Being number one is not a status we’d prefer, but it’s one we are likely to keep for a time. Ultimately, India, with its population four times larger than ours, or Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh or similar with lesser populations but less-developed healthcare could exceed our overall cases. We don’t wish it on anyone.

Using Reported Cases per Million of Population

Because of the population differences, the raw number of cases does not reflect the status of the disease within a country. Ten-thousand cases in a country of ten million is much more serious than ten thousand cases in a country of one-hundred million. Converting the raw reported numbers into cases per million of population eliminates the effect of population size.

All statistics used in this blog come from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/. I have not attempted to independently verify their numbers, but I believe them to be reliable. As of March 26, the U.S. had a reported case rate of 258 per million. Italy stood at 1,333; Spain at 1,236, Germany at 524. Some countries we don’t hear about in the news have much higher rates: Iceland stands at 2,350 and Luxembourg at 2,321.

The U.S. Prognosis if it follows other country trends.

We are in the early stages of this contagion’s spread. I prepared this chart to illustrate how our rate of reported cases compares with Italy and Germany. Day 1 for each country is the date when reported cases per million of population was approximately 6. Italy (in blue) reached that milestone first and, therefore, has the most days on the chart. Germany (salmon) reached the threshold eight days after Italy. The U.S. (black) had the benefit of an additional week before it crossed the threshold.

Covid-19 Reported Cases per Million Population: Italy, Germany, U.S.


Germany has closely tracked Italy for three weeks. That does not mean we know Germany will continue to follow Italy’s trend. Perhaps their “social distancing” measures will prove more effective, or their healthcare system more robust in stopping the spread of the disease by better testing and isolation of patients with positive coronavirus results.

The United States can take no comfort from this chart. Our rate of increase for the last week has exceeded Italy’s and Germany’s for their equivalent period.

What would it mean if we were to follow Italy’s trajectory? Using their 1,333 cases per million, the U.S. would total 440,000 reported cases at day 30. We would have about 33,000 new cases that day—Good Friday—two days before the President wishes for filled churches on Easter Sunday.

Will it be that bad?

I have no idea. Perhaps the measures many states have taken will be much more effective than Italy’s efforts, and we’ll see our rate of infection slow significantly. But it is also possible that because of the independent spirit Americans are so proud of, large pockets of the country will continue to ignore best medical precautions and our path will continue to worsen.

Below is the same chart, but with Spain added.

Covid-19 Cases per Million population: Italy, Germany, U.S. & Spain


Spain (green) reached the initial six cases per million on the same day as Germany. They did not implement the same precautions, and Spain’s rate per million has already exceeded Italy’s.

These charts should be a precautionary tale. In the U.S. we still have large portions of our population who continue to be exposed. Those working in our hospitals are most vulnerable: we bring the worst cases to them. That is the sharp tip, but underneath are all those who continue to serve so we may live. The folks at the grocery stores, drug stores, Amazon’s warehouses, factories producing masks and ventilators, police, fire, national guard. The list goes on.

We have not isolated those “out in the world” from those in “self-isolation.” That’s why infections are likely to continue for many more weeks. We can hope warm weather will help bring an end, but seeing cases rising in places like Australia and Chile, where summer recently moved to autumn, do not provide comfort.

Over the next days, facts will replace supposition concerning the trajectory of infections in the U.S. Rather than wishing and hoping for life to return to normal in two weeks, we need to concentrate on caring for those most ill and protecting those most vulnerable from contact with anyone infected.

This might be an appropriate time to live the words John F Kennedy used in his inaugural speech. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

* * * * *

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. False Bottom, the sixth and most recent novel in the series is set in the Boston area. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

What Are We Trying To Accomplish?


“The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score.” — Bill Copeland

“Without goals, and plans to reach them, you are like a ship that has set sail with no destination.” — Fitzhugh Dodson

The United States has not articulated a goal for dealing with the coronavirus that leads to COVID-19. Without clarity, we continue to mis-allocate and squander scarce resources and to sow distrust with conflicting information. In short, we will fail to reach our objective if we continue as a ship under full sail with no destination or compass.

The medical profession has proposed that our goal must be to flatten the curve of infection and provide extra resources so that our healthcare providers are not overwhelmed by the disease. The Trump administration has never accepted this objective.

Had that been the aim, the administration would have tried to slow contagion to buy time and use that respite to prepare for the coming tsunami of illness. It’s not that they didn’t know what to expect. Trump announced on January 31 that he was instituting some travel restrictions on individuals arriving from China. We won’t argue here whether the restrictions were too early or too late, too onerous or too lax. By the end of January, health officials knew the problem was serious enough to recommend restricting travel and Trump did.

In a globally connected world, no one could imagine that such restrictions would allow the U.S. to avoid contamination. By then, we already had several cases. What it could buy was time to prepare, time to buy some insurance. The thing about insurance is that you pay the premium and then hope like heck you never have to file a claim. We chose instead to wish for the best and not pay the insurance premium.

We should have ramped up production of masks. (One night of news from China showed that we’d need them.) By the end of January, we knew this disease required ventilators beyond our capacity. We should have ramped up production and storage. China was already building two additional hospitals Why weren’t we developing plans for providing more beds? So states and local government could react quickly when novel coronavirus made its appearance, we could have accelerated production of test kits and pre-distributed some portion to state health departments. We could have developed communication policies to educate residents on the danger, creating a language of short-term sacrifice for long-term benefit. I have seen no evidence we did anything of the sort.

The travel restrictions and decent luck bought us a month, and we pissed it away celebrating what a fine job we were doing and watching the DOW reach record highs.

In January and February, we did not have a goal to be prepared to control the novel coronavirus. Trump, on the campaign trail for re-election, dismissed any concerns over a pandemic and promoted his running of the economy: how low unemployment was, how high the stock market was.

Does that mean keeping our economy strong is the unstated goal? For some, it is. Florida’s governor refused to close beaches during Spring Break (although now he wants anyone visiting Florida from New York to self-quarantine for fourteen days!). Just this week, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick suggested that grandparents should willingly risk death by COVID-19 “in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren.” Obviously, healthcare is not something Patrick values as American. He wants us to “get back to work . . .get back to living . . .and those of us who are seventy-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves.”

This idea that what Americans value most is commerce is not a recent one. Calvin Coolidge said in a 1925 address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors that “The chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world.[i]

The question of the economic cost of saving lives is not abstract. We’d probably all agree that we wouldn’t send most people home for two weeks or longer to save one individual life. And we’d probably agree that if 100 million Americans would die because we didn’t shutter our economy, we close it down and count the bargain cheap. Easy answers at the extremes don’t eliminate tough choices in the middle.

That’s where having stated goals is useful. As many people have noted, we drive automobiles even though their use causes thousands of deaths and disabilities a year. Over time, Congress felt pressured and passed laws to make vehicles safer, but the convenience and economic advantages of automobile travel continue to be more important to us than the human toll of death and dismemberment autos cause.

With COVID-19, we have no shared vision of the tradeoff between economic well-being and increased mortality. If we agree that the only aim is to flatten the curve, we should take the approach of China and South Korea, test everyone and lock down the population. The hodge-podge of solutions at state and local levels when travel continues between areas can defeat even the best of intentions. Only national restrictions will work and only the federal government may do that. We’ve made shared sacrifices in times of war, but it’s important for leaders to demonstrate understanding. It does not help to propose social distancing and then see the President gather his team in close proximity for his daily update.

Despite Trump declaring himself a “wartime president” he has been ambivalent about calling for shared sacrifice and defining what that sacrifice must be. He declares that we will secure “total victory” over the virus without defining a path to success. Had he set clear objectives, Congress would have shared focus for its third try at bailing out portions of the economy, as it did with its first two slices at the pie. Without it, politicians (and their supporters) have retreated to their political tribal bunkers, squabbling over the same issues: corporations or people, broad-brush solutions or targeted remedies.

Dithering as a strategy in the face of a crisis is a recipe for disaster, and I fear we shall enjoy its bitter fruit. We cannot catch a time-machine and redo the past; we can only change the present and its effect on the future. I believe Americans will pull together if given a clear understanding of their required sacrifices and a believable assurance that the government will mitigate the damage as much as it can. Only one person has the positional power to make this happen.

President Trump must tell us his intentions. In clear, direct, unambiguous language, he must detail the goals he wants us to achieve. In November, voters can decide the wisdom of his proposed course and either reward him with four more years or vote him out of office. 



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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. False Bottom, the sixth and most recent novel in the series is set in the Boston area. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Why the U.S. Should Let the Airlines Go Bankrupt


Some corporations or industries are so intertwined in our national economy that their going out of business would cause catastrophic dislocations in our economy. The automobile industry is one; banks are another; airlines are a third.

Without governmental intervention, it is likely that most, if not all, U.S.-based airlines will be forced into bankruptcy. Their cash reserves are dwindling; new revenues are shrinking, and they have huge fixed costs. Unless these firms can arrange new financing, they will shut down. New lenders are reluctant to step in and catch a falling knife. Without government intervention, airlines are unlikely to receive enough financing to service current debts and continue in business.

Since politicians agree the U.S. must have an airline industry, they will provide a bailout. The question becomes what form it will take.

When a corporation becomes “too large to fail,” its leaders will act in a riskier manner. It makes economic sense for them: if the risks pay off, they are richly rewarded; if things go badly, the government provides a backstop. The insurance field refers to this concept as a moral hazard. If insurance covers all the risk, the policyholder has no reason to guard against that risk. To protect against that hazard, insurance policies includes deductibles and/or co-payments to make sure the policyholder also incurs a loss.

Critics of the airlines point to their high levels of debt and share buybacks as two examples of overly risky behavior. It’s not my purpose in this blog to discuss the merits of those arguments. I do think these are staples of early twenty-first century capitalism, in which corporations are run primarily for the benefit of management and shareholders, with little regard to other stakeholders.

What happens if the federal government does not intervene? The U.S. airline industry has already undergone vast consolidation, so a few strong airlines buying up weaker siblings isn’t an answer. They either go through Chapter 11 bankruptcy to reduce their debt loads and cost structures or liquidate, selling their assets to the highest bidders to pay off as much of their debt as possible. Either way generates huge uncertainty, and workers bear the brunt of the disruption.

By intervening, the government provides a guarantee that the companies will continue, eliminating that uncertainty.

This does not mean we the people should write airlines a blank check so they can continue business as usual once we recover from the coronavirus-induced curtailment of flights. No, we should lend airlines funds to survive, but force them through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization process as part of the deal.

Because the companies need the government (and therefore the people of the United States) to become lenders of last resort, the corporations have essentially defaulted on their obligations. In a default, bondholders become the new owners, and stockholders lose all rights to the corporation.

The U.S. government should receive common stock to reflect its cash infusions. Mortgage holders (those with claims on specific assets) are treated on par with the U.S. government. Subordinated bonds should participate in the equity to a lesser extent. Each class of bondholder, other than the federal government, would have to write off some portion of their debt. They all made risky bets that did not pay off, and they all should suffer a loss.

Without diving into detailed specifics, the government gets a substantial equity interest (which it will sell over time) and first call on future income to pay off the loan. Mortgage and senior debt suffer some loss, which, if the company survives, they can make up through their stock holdings. Subordinated debt holders will lose a significant portion of their investment.

Corporations often use bankruptcy as a lever to tear up union contracts, terminate pension and healthcare plans. As part of any government bailout, the corporation should not be allowed to reduce rank-and-file compensation and benefits. Executive plans would not get any such protection. When common stock becomes worthless, stock options also lose their value. Other nonqualified executive plans become general creditors of the corporation, receiving no more favorable treatment than provided under current bankruptcy law.

The purpose of an industry bailout is to save vital services the industry provides and to save as many jobs as possible for the long-term health of the industry; it is not to put additional money in the pockets of stockholders or executives running the corporations.

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. False Bottom, the sixth and most recent novel in the series is set in the Boston area. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Why Comparing COVID-19 to the Flu is Flawed


Comparison to the number of flu deaths (say 30,000 a year) and the current number of COVID-19 deaths misses several major points when viewed from a national or international level. Humans have been exposed to various flu viruses for many generations. Many have partial or full immunity to certain strains; large percentages of older folks in the U.S. get annual flu shots[i]. None of us has any immunity to COVID-19.

Flu spreads widely, but because of vaccines and partial immunity, slowly. Last year, the CDC estimated 35.5 million of us got sick with influenza, 16.5 went to a health care provider; 490,000 were hospitalized, and 34,000 died.[ii]

COVID-19 spreads rapidly through exposed populations. That explosive growth can (and did in China) overwhelm hospital facilities in any country. Some years of severe flu have also overwhelmed hospitals, but to a lesser extent than projections of what an unconstrained COVID-19 epidemic will cause.

Even if COVID-19 acted the same as flu it could cause an additional half million hospitalizations. At that level, the system is in trouble. But COVID-19 spreads faster than the flu (because of the lack of immunity) and is more deadly.

The death rates in a typical flu year are less than 1% for those over age 65. The COVID-19 death rate for the 50-59 group are estimated at 1.3%, for 60-69 at 3.6%, for 70-79 at 8% and for 80+ at 14.8%.[iii]

Now, project much higher rates of infection because of the virgin population, combined with much higher rates of mortality, and the resulting projection of deaths from an unconstrained COVID-19 is significantly higher than that from flu. Unless we moderate the speed of infection, our healthcare system will collapse under the weight of these additional illnesses. China may be able to build a hospital in a week, but in the U.S., we wouldn't even have the permit after a week's time.

Do extreme measures controlling population movements limit the number of cases? Maybe, but that is not the only objective of decreasing the opportunities for the virus to spread. One key from a public health perspective is to not overwhelm the health care system. An unconstrained virus infects a population very quickly and then is done because new hosts are no longer available. A constrained virus will take much longer to run its course, may or may not have the same overall exposure, but smooths out the number of infections over time--meaning the health care system has a much better chance of treating the ill.

Here's a graphical representation of this “flattening of the curve” taken from Vox:

CDC Graph of Effect of Flattening COVID-19 Infections

The flu has a naturally flattened curve because of immunity and vaccinations compared to COVID-19. As we have already seen in pockets of exposure, unchecked by social distancing precautions, COVID-19 spreads very rapidly.

Treating COVID-19 with the same disregard as we do the flu (Oh, it only kills 30,000 people a year.) will lead to a major healthcare crisis in the U.S. Aggressively acting to slow it down is important to all of us, even the younger generations who have little to personally fear from catching the disease.

Closing on a more hopeful note, Apple announced it has reopened all its stores in China.[iv] As the bad news continues to pile up, we should remember that this too shall pass.


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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. False Bottom, the sixth and most recent novel in the series is set in the Boston area. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

It’s a Bear Market. Now What?


On March 11, 2020, the Dow officially entered a bear market when it closed at 23,553.22 more than 20% below it’s all-time high of 29,9551.42 on February 12, 2020. It took less than a month for the bear to appear, but bear markets are often quick and steep, whereas bull markets are longer, sustained rallies.

While the Dow gets the headlines, I prefer looking at the S&P 500, which is also on the precipice of reaching bear territory. This morning markets dropped 7% (and triggered a second circuit breaker pause this week). Unless the S&P 500 claws most of that loss back before the end of the day, it will also reach bear market status. Must it happen? No: five times since 1976, the S&P 500 has declined 19+%, but not reached the “magic” 20%-loss threshold. I wouldn’t bank on today being the day that makes this number six.

In my blog two days ago, I suggested, “Stock market volatility is caused by uncertainty” and “[the markets’] real concerns are the economic effects of government policies to contain the virus.”

Some of that uncertainty was cleared up during President Trump’s speech last night, but not much. The key takeaways are:
  •        To limit COVID-19 cases from entering the U.S., he’s suspending travel from Europe (excluding the U.K.) for 30-days.
  •         Health insurance carriers have agreed to not charge co-payments for COVID-19 treatments.
  •         The president has promised to take emergency action to provide financial relief for workers who are ill, quarantined, or caring for others due to coronavirus. He supplied no specifics regarding what this aid would look like or when he would take the action.
  •         He’s asking Congress to approve $50 billion of additional funding to the Small Business Administration to make low-interest loans.
  •         The IRS will extend tax-filing deadlines for undefined individuals and businesses (to temporarily provide additional liquidity to the system.
  •         He requested that Congress enact immediate payroll tax relief—something congressional leaders from both parties have already suggested has little chance of passing.

So why the negative reaction from the futures markets? I’m not them, so I can only guess (which is what they’re doing as well!). The major problem is that much of the uncertainty is unresolved, and what was resolved is not good news for corporations.

  •       The lack of specificity demonstrates the Federal government is still behind the curve, reacting instead of being proactive. How much financial relief can people expect? What will be the fiscal stimulus effect of the aid? How quickly will it appear? The speech felt like something the President had to do but didn’t want to do.
  •         That the president continued to push payroll tax relief is a negative reminder of Trump becoming fixated on his preferences and his inability to find larger, unifying solutions to issues.
  •         No announced agreement between the White House and the House of Representatives on legislation. (Sen. McConnell has already said the Senate will wait for legislation from the House.)
  •         No mention of targeted relief to affected industries: The 30-day ban on most European travelers will hit airlines, hotels/motels/resorts, restaurants, ridesharing, etc. The trickle-down effect will be significant.
  •         No mention by the president that kits will be available to test anyone who needs it. No assurances that the health care system is prepared for a surge of new cases or what the government is doing to help them prepare.
  •         And in after speech news, the NBA suspended their season after one of its players tested positive for coronavirus. (This after the NCAA announced March Madness games would take place in empty arenas.)

In short, we have reached a point in the U.S. virus cycle where most of the news will be bad. The drumbeat will be depressing, and more people will react by reining in the ways in which they physically interact with others. More areas of the country will experience their first case, bringing the disease closer to home for more people. Case numbers will rise, as will deaths.

More event cancellations will make the news. Businesses have already cut back on travel and meetings. One after another, colleges and universities are moving to online classes. Some, like Harvard, are trying to empty their dorms as much as possible. Actions taken in Washington State to restrict congregations of people will be adopted elsewhere as pockets of COVID-19 appear.

The certainty of negative outcomes has caused the market decline. The uncertainty will cause further market volatility—both up and down. Based on that, I don’t think we’ve yet seen the bottom of this market cycle.

Some clarity for the markets will occur when the House passes its legislation. That clarity may be good or bad for the markets, but my guess that soon after that, we are likely to see volatility begin to dampen.

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. False Bottom, the sixth and most recent novel in the series is set in the Boston area. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Fighting the Next Recession Using a Squirt Gun with a Spray Nozzle


As I write this, it is unclear how large the coronavirus effect will be on worldwide economies. It will be negative; we don’t know how bad. Nor do we know how long the direct effects will continue. Parts of China have already returned to work, but many places have not reopened. According to Bloomberg news, pollution levels are still 20% lower there than at the same time as last year.[i]

Italy has essentially self-quarantined, the country forbidding public gatherings including postponing all sporting events. Israel now requires all incoming travelers to self-quarantine for fourteen days.[ii] In Iran, some of the top leadership is infected.

The U.S. has recorded over 700 cases of coronavirus through March 9. But here’s something to consider: it takes about five days for the symptoms to show up. If people are stupid (and who would bet against that?) and don’t take self-quarantining seriously when they feel ill or are exposed, then the U.S. is only at the early stages of contagion.

Stock market volatility is caused by uncertainty. (With certainty, markets reflect the news—up or down—and then go on with life.) How many people in the U.S. are ultimately infected by coronavirus and how many die are not the questions the stock market really worries about. As President Trump has pointed out, many more people are likely to die of the flu (or gunshots or traffic accidents, which the president did not use as a comparison, although he could have) this year. No, the real concerns are the economic effects of government policies to contain the virus.

I predict those effects will be sufficient to cause a worldwide recession. What I don’t know is how long and how serious it will be. Economic expansions do not die of old age. Expansions cause imbalances in the economy and eventually some external shock demonstrates those imbalances are no longer viable. The resulting recession corrects those imbalances and sets a new base upon which to build a new expansion.

The U.S. economy has been expanding for eleven years, fed in part by enormous Federal Government deficits. During those eleven years the national debt has increased by $10.7 trillion. The projected budget deficit for the current fiscal year is projected to be over $1 trillion.[iii]

This massive injection of borrowed funds to prop up the economy has worked. February’s job’s report indicated unemployment was at a 50-year low of 3.5% with 273,000 newly employed workers for the month[iv]. Damage from coronavirus will show up slowly in government statistics, but prior to this shock, the total economy was constrained not by capital to borrow or by unemployment, but by the lack of qualified workers.

Into this debt-fueled economic expansion arrives the coronavirus and government responses to it. China shutting down travel in infected providences seems to have worked. The number of new cases recently reported is much smaller than in the rest of the world. But their economy has not yet restarted in full. The worldwide effects are being felt, and they will continue for a long time.

A Marketplace interview airing last Thursday (3/5/20) indicated that LA Port traffic was down 25% from the same time last year. Containers are piling up at the port because of the lack of ships to return them to Asia. United Airlines and others have announced significant reductions to their March and April schedules. Events bringing large numbers of people together are being cancelled around the world. The London Book Fair expected 25,000 people to attend. Now no one will. Tech conferences and marketing conventions are being canceled in droves. These affect not only the immediate loss of travel, hotel rooms, meals out, etc. Longer-term, they affect orders for goods and services that will never be made because of lost exposure, innovations delayed, startups squashed.

Reduced travel and transport of goods requires less oil. An oversupply leads to a decrease in price. That’s short-term good for consumers (as President Trump extolled), but terrible for the U.S. oil fields in Texas and the Dakotas where high-leveraged exploration outfits will first shut off drilling and then close their doors through bankruptcy.

These are data points in a large picture of uncertainty—enough uncertainty that the U.S. Federal Reserve in a unanimous decision cut its benchmark target interest rate by 50 basis points from a range of 1.50% to 1.75% to a new range of 1.00% to 1.25%. (A basis point is 1/100th of 1%.) They are obviously worried and made this move “in support of achieving its maximum employment and price stability goals.”

Fed rate cuts have a few short-term effects (banks immediately cut the rates they pay savers, new borrowers have lower finance charges, often stock markets increase). However, the reason the Fed makes cuts is not for the short-term effect. It’s because they worry about the longer-term. Lower interest rates will (eventually) stimulate the economy through the process of businesses deciding to invest more because more projects are profitable given the lower borrowing costs.

Can cutting interest rates mitigate damages from the coronavirus shock? Not likely. They won’t repair supply chain issues. Interest rate cuts can’t get quarantined people back into factories or offices or out buying from restaurants. Interest rate cuts may delay bankruptcies in over-leveraged firms, but they won’t prevent them. Nor do they put money on the table for people who have lost their jobs.

Trump has discussed a payroll tax cut to stimulate the economy: a broad brush that will increase the deficit without targeting people in ways that will stimulate consumer confidence and buying. Those who still have jobs don’t need more money to buy more stuff—especially if there are shortages caused by supply chain difficulties. And Trump’s mentioned supporting the oil industry to offset their losses, reminiscent of his approach of tapping the American taxpayer to pay farmers for losses caused by his tariff wars.

I am not averse to spending money to address the current issues. But let’s do it in a manner that does build confidence. Instead of spreading money using a squirt gun with a spray nozzle, sprinkling a little everywhere in hopes some of it will work, we should fire-hose our spending to promote confidence and address human losses.

The bipartisan $8+ billion-dollar legislation to address coronavirus is a good start. Why not make sure everyone can be tested for coronavirus without an economic cost to them? If they don’t have insurance, make it free. If they have insurance, pay for the deductible or reimburse the insurance company for their costs.

How about reimbursing those who suffer work loss because they have to self-quarantine? Or compensating those who don’t have sick leave and become infected? How about a plan to reimburse those who must stay home with their kids because their schools are closed and who can’t work from home? These measures directly put money in the pockets of those who most need it—and will spend it and directly help the economy.
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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. False Bottom, the sixth and most recent novel in the series is set in the Boston area. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Dow Makes an Orderly Retreat



Headlines screams we’ve just suffered the worst lost in the Dow EVER. True, only if your measurement is points, which misses the . . .er . . . point.

To compare relative losses what counts is the percentage drop not the number of points. Losing 100 points if the Dow started at 1,000 hurts exactly the same as losing 1,000 points if the Dow is at 10,000.

Given that, how did February 27, 2020 stack up? Not even in the top twenty percentage points lost[i].

I remember very well the worst day for the Dow: October 19, 1987. I was at a Society of Actuaries meeting in Canada. The Dow dropped “only” 508.0 points, but that equaled 22.61% of the index. In a single day. And not only that, but according to a friend of mine, also at the conference, who worked for one of the large investment banks, for much of the day, no one really knew what prices were because trading essentially stopped.

For perspective, the Dow closed its all-time high on February 12, 2020 at 29,551.42. It has dropped 12.81% since that high.

On October 28, 1929, the Dow lost 12.82% in a single day. (That’s the second worst percentage drop for a day.) On October 29, 1929, it dropped another 11.73%, and on November 6, 1929 it peeled off another 9.92%.

Unlike the 1987 sell-off, markets have been orderly. There has been no panic.

If you are still working, think of this as a 12% off sale on your next 401(k) contribution!

If you are retired, consider that on March 9, 2009 the Dow closed around 6547 and we are still up nearly 400% from that date. (Most of which occurred during President Obama’s term, not President Trump’s.)

What will tomorrow bring? I do not know. Another slide is justified by some because supply chains are still being damaged and more companies will report they are lowering their first quarter 2020 earnings estimates .

A dead-cat bounce is proposed by others because they believe the market has not recognized the Fed will soon lower interest rates to offset some of the damage.

A strong buy opportunity is proposed by others who think this virus is just a blip that will make us stronger in the end—and, housing starts are still on the rise with unemployment at all-time lows.

If you’re not against alcohol, I suggest a nice glass of wine, beer, or cocktail to take the edge off.

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. False Bottom, the sixth and most recent novel in the series is set in the Boston area. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

Friday, February 21, 2020

How Democratic Billionaires Could Save Democracy

Billionaires have, apparently, decided the way to save the United States is to become president. Trump (assuming he is a billionaire—who knows since he hasn’t released financial statements?) won the presidency in 2016. Billionaires Steyer and Bloomberg want to run against him in 2020.

Media reports suggest Steyer has spent over $100 million of his own money on a campaign that hasn’t yet earned him a single delegate. Bloomberg started later and has spent over $300 million. Are they the most qualified Democratic candidates? I’ll let you decide that for yourself. For argument’s sake, let’s say they are, but agreed instead of trying to get themselves elected, they would back whoever else the Democratic party chose for their candidate and spent their $400 million (and counting) on making sure everyone who wanted to vote in the November general election could.

Here are a few things they could have done with their bucks (and still could):

Voter Registration & Encouragement

Billionaires could support voter registration drives. I’d prefer these were nonpartisan because supporting democracy means giving every eligible person the opportunity to participate in elections.

All states have methodologies to remove no-longer-eligible voters from their rolls. How each state defines eligibility varies. Many states have use-it-or-lose-it laws to purge people from their rolls because they have chosen to not vote in previous elections. Legal, but one problem is those same states often have registration requirements that won’t allow the purged to re-register in time to vote in the next election. In 2017, Georgia used its law to remove more than 100,000 people from its voter rolls for this reason alone.

What if the billionaires funded an outreach program to have someone visit each removed person to make sure they understood they could no longer vote and provide them information about how to re-register? Let’s say it costs $100 a person for such a visit. $1 million bucks could make sure Georgians knew their rights. It’s not the same in all fifty states, but if it were, it would total $50 million to make sure people could vote.

They could spend money to support same-day registration initiatives. With proof of residency, why shouldn’t we allow citizens to vote?

Many states have implemented Voter ID requirements. What would it cost for the billionaires to fund efforts to provide approved voter IDs to all those who don’t have them?

Transportation

Some people want to vote but can’t get to the polls. What if the billionaires provided the dollars to hire ride services for anyone who needed transportation for primaries and general elections? How many thousands of potential voters could benefit? I don’t know, but they are likely to be poor or disabled; otherwise they could afford transportation. These groups favor Democratic policies.

This could only be done in states where it is legal. Michigan Republicans enacted a law making it illegal to pay for a vehicle to transport an able-bodied voter to the polls. It’s a misdemeanor charge that could result in up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. Their supposed reason is that people could be influenced to vote the way the driver wants the individual to vote—baloney, since the driver can’t assist with the actual voting process.

Court Challenges

Politicians in power have used laws to perpetuate their hold. Gerrymandering is one example most people know. Recently, Republicans have controlled most of the state legislatures and so have been the ones making sure to draw districts to their advantage. If Democrats were in power, they’d likely be doing the same thing.

Billionaires interested in promoting democracy should invest in defeating gerrymandering efforts. Here’s one worthy example: In 2018, Michigan voters approved by 3-2 the creation of an independent redistricting commission. It replaces the current system in which the state legislature gerrymanders districts. Republicans (who had control of all three branches of government prior to the election) sued to overturn the voter-approved referendum.

Voting Machines

It’s crucial to have paper ballots back-ups to electronic voting to be able to recount ballots should there be any irregularities (whether or not malicious). Many districts can’t afford to provide capable voting machines. Billionaires could buy and donate the machines to help secure our elections.

Much more

I’ve barely scratched the surface of ways Democratic-leaning billionaires can help return voting power to people. What do you think?

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. False Bottom, the sixth and most recent novel in the series is set in the Boston area. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.