Market Commentary: A Matter of Degrees

The average lifespan back in 1868 was approximately 38.3 years. People were shorter and thinner and suffered all manner of chronic and infectious diseases. Dr. Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich, a German physician, psychiatrist, and medical professor was running the hospital at Leipzig University at that time. In the process of observation and diagnosis, he took the axillary temperatures of 25,000 patients using a foot long thermometer that required 20 minutes to register. Based on the curves he patiently plotted, he determined that fever was not a disease but a symptom, and that the normal human body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. His is the measurement that we have since used to determine the gravity of illness in everyone from newborns to centenarians. But the human body has changed over the years and researchers have been disputing the Wunderlich axiom since the early 1990’s. The latest of two dozen modern studies is from Stanford University, where researchers finds that the new normal is closer to 97.5 degrees. But, as one might imagine, revising the cherished dictums on clinical thermometry is a not a speedy process.

In Wuhan, China and in clinics, hospitals and doctor’s offices around the word, degrees matter. Temperatures of 99.1 or higher are raising alarms as possible symptoms of a coronavirus that causes a lethal form of pneumonia. Dry cough, muscle pain and fatigue may also present over the course of a week before an infected person feels ill enough to seek medical care. At this writing, there are 4,585 confirmed cases in 18 countries and the death toll has reached 106. The rapid spread of the disease has spurred herculean efforts on the part of health professionals and chilling fears among travelers and investors who recall the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002 and the Ebola virus in 2014.

Global financial markets, which have already withstood the shocks of U.S.-Iran hostilities, the U.S-China trade conflict, the approach of Brexit, and the impeachment trial of a U.S. president in the first three weeks of the New Year, became roiled again on Monday. Even though health officials remind us that the influenza has resulted in 12,000 to 79,000 deaths annually since 2010, reports on the spread of a mysterious virus caused a one-day selloff in stocks on exchanges in Asia, the U.S. and Europe. Bloomberg reported that the slide wiped about $1.5 trillion off the value of world stocks in one week. The Dow erased the entire month’s gains and the Russell 2000 fell 1.5%. Oil prices fell 13% to $53.14 per barrel and gold gained $57.41 an ounce. Money quickly shifted to bonds and the dollar until Tuesday, when traders viewed the degree of global containment effort as likely to prevent a major economic loss. So far in 2020, the 2-year Treasury yield at 1.44% is up 12 basis points. The 10- and 30-year yields have plunged 31 basis points to 1.60% and 2.05%, respectively. Alongside governments, 10-year Baa-rated corporate bond yields have fallen 29 basis points and both the 10- and 30-year AAA municipal bond benchmark yields are down 26 basis points to 1.18% and 1.83%.

Markets focused on the possible implications of an epidemic in China leading to a global health emergency would otherwise be obsessed with Thursday’s Gross Domestic Product number, Friday’s British farewell to the European Union, wagers expected to total $6 billion on Sunday’s Super Bowl, and Wednesday’s meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, the first such gathering of the year. Voters this year present as a few degrees more dovish, as the Fed Presidents from Kansas City and Boston relinquish their seats to the Fed Presidents from Cleveland, Philadelphia, Dallas and Minneapolis. There are still two vacancies for the Board of Governors and the nominees await Senate confirmation. Investors will watch the press conference and take the proverbial temperature of the Chair and Committee members on inflation, repurchase agreements, and the virus. Futures trading reflects only a 12% chance of a rate hike.

The municipal market is expected to see only $5.7 billion of new issues this week and the 30-day visible supply totals a mere $10.1 billion while redemptions and maturities are expected to add $25.8 billion of cash to the yearlong manhunt for tax-exempt and taxable municipal bonds. The largest financings happen to be for hospitals in Florida and New York, and there are several other health system issues in North Carolina, Indiana and Ohio on the slate. In the high yield space, the Port of Beaumont, Texas has a $265 million non-rated issue with tax-exempt and taxable series for the Jefferson Gulf Coast Project, Howard University is bringing a $145.4 million BBB-minus rated taxable refunding with a corporate CUSIP. And the California Enterprise Development Authority has a $9.2 million Ba2 rated financing for the Academy for Academic Excellence.

From the world of academia, Dr. Matthew Lieberman will be a keynote speaker at the 17th Annual HJ Sims Late Winter Conference next month in San Diego. Professor Lieberman holds degrees from Rutgers and Harvard and directs the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at UCLA, one of the first labs to combine social psychology and neuroimaging. He measures and maps brain activity to demonstrate how we are wired to have a natural preference for switching from non-social to social tasks, how putting our feelings into words can have a soothing effect on those emotions, and how we might be able to help people who disagree come together without being disagreeable. He contends that our need to connect with others is just as important, if not more, than our basic need for shelter and food. So we invite you to hear his remarks, join us at the InterContinental Hotel, savor dinner at the San Diego Zoo, and enjoy a tremendous networking opportunity by registering at this LINK.