A Light At The End Of The Tunnel

There is a lot of disinformation on the internet which is likely from Russia or China, meant to scare you and confuse things. There is one that claims there would be 3% of the total population death rate, and millions of dead Americans. That is pure fiction. First the death rate apples to confirmed cases, not the total population, so when they say 3% or 1% or whatever, it is a percent of a tiny number. Second they still have no good data to know the death rate. The data is very incomplete so far, and inaccurate from places like China. In S Korea, which seems to have good data, the death rate is around 1% of confirmed cases, not of the population. In the entire world there are only 11, 585 deaths as of Saturday morning. There are over 4 billion people in the world.

The US deaths are only 300 so far, and only 19 a day when the virus is likely at its peak right now, out of 330 million population. Of those, there are a considerable number who were very old and dying anyway in a short time in nursing homes, or otherwise quite sick. The number of perfectly healthy people dying is barely measurable. Far more die from auto accidents, opioids or flu every day. You have to just wait for the data experts to give us real numbers, and ignore the disinformation on the internet. What we do know is that most people who do test positive just feel like they have a bad cold or mild flu and recuperate at home. Just because someone tests positive does not mean they need to be hospitalized at all.

About 10 days ago I said there is a trade of the economy being destroyed to save the lives of a small number of old people, many of whom were dying anyway. A simple, cold cost benefit analysis. Now that much of the economy, and all of CA and NY and other states are shut down, we can start to see the cost of sheltering in place and closures of so much of the economy. Much of the rest of the world is also shut down. Although many companies are continuing to pay staff , and most of the country is not shut down, and continues to go to work, we see the $2.0 Trillion, or whatever number it ends up being, as the government initial share of the cost for which we will all pay for years. It is very unclear that $2 Trillion is enough to rectify what is happening.

However, there is no choice but for the government to bailout all of the economy. On an individual basis, the cost to many low income hourly and commission workers is devastating just as many of these people were beginning to enjoy the fruits if the Trump economy. It will again discourage those who finally came back to the work force, and those in the black community who finally saw an opportunity to be a regular employee and to have a regular life. We must get these people back to their jobs as soon as possible. The economic cost is going to be enormous if the shutdown goes beyond April 1 when the15 day period is over. The workout specialists are already overwhelmed. There is not the capacity at the banks nor the consulting world to deal with all the workouts.

Things to consider. There is a thing called community immunity which means many get the disease, but in such a light way as to be barely noted, and so the community as a whole develops immunity and kills off the infection. A very slow process. Second, it appears they are on the verge of the malaria drug as one possible fix, and maybe some other drugs being not far from final trials and release. They are running trials now in NY, and Australia is supposedly running a new nationwide trial now. The one type of malaria drug supposedly relieves the symptoms in three days, and then the person heals. It is an existing drug and can be manufactured in great quantity. Supposedly, the government has already ordered millions of doses to be manufactured now assuming it will be approved for wide use. If this is proven out over the next week or two, at least for compassionate use, then that changes the entire game. Fauci said that any doctor can order it to be used now. It means there is a possible cure, and so anyone who tests positive can be given the drug and potentially cured, or at least brought to a level where they can then get cured. Logistics might take a short period to get things in place in quantity, but it would allow everyone to go back to work. In addition, the last week or so of social distancing has seemingly bent the curve if you listen carefully to what the experts are suggesting in the last day or so. Fauci all but said it Saturday. They are not saying it has, but they suggest they believe it has begun to make a real difference. That bought the time they were always saying they needed to get the therapeutics in place.

We will see what they say at the end of next week, but my sense is they will suggest lifting the some social distancing in many parts of the country on April 1, or so, to try to stem the disaster in the economy, which is about to get far more damaging than the virus. The virus will be over as soon as warm weather returns and as the therapeutics become readily available. The economic damage will remain for years if they do not stop the shut down in a week or two. Trump kept talking about a two week shut down, and that now seems to be the plan. Reopen the economy by April 1, or soon thereafter If you have listened very carefully to what Trump and the experts have said, it fits.

He said they needed a two week shut down to bend the curve. We are one week into that. They said they believe the curve is flattening even though the number of infected is growing rapidly now, and that is mainly due to more testing. They said they needed time. I believe they knew the malaria drug probably works in three days, and they needed time to complete the trials and to ramp up production. I believe they had a plan all along knowing the economic damage of a longer lasting shut down would devastate the economy for several years vs maybe a few more old and sick people die sooner. Politically there was no way Trump could say anything other than he considers lives more important than the economy. March 30 is the key date now as the end of the 15 day period.

If that happens, and most of the country returns to some degree of normality over the next couple of months, and if Congress can actually pass a real package to get cash into workers and small business hands very quickly, and to save the travel industry, then we have a chance to limit the economic damage, and the stock market will take off. I think we are close to being there. It might not go that way. We just do not know yet. Working from home, plus the ability of many companies to continue to pay for a little while, will greatly mitigate the damage if they start to reopen some things by April 1. Most companies are adapting and keeping people on payroll where they can.

If we go far into April still on full lockdown, then the severe damage escalates fast. The problem is government needs to balance reopening vs perception they are putting us at risk. The other problem is there are still no good data points to know anything for sure. Since testing is just ramping up, there is no baseline from which to truly measure. Lastly, they need to clearly define who is dying. If it is as they say, mostly old and already sick people dying, with just a few cases of younger people dying who were already compromised, then they might treat this like a bad flu season and reopen most of the country. We have to assume based on S Korea and China, that the lockdown will make a huge difference and the curve is bending and is flattening now as Fauci suggests.

A $2 trillion+ add to the debt is a bad thing, but unavoidable right now. Unclear what they do about Boeing. It is .5% of GDP and a major defense contractor, so they must do something fast. Maybe it is guaranteed debt, maybe a rights offering, maybe some other creative structure, but they need to do it fast since so many small businesses supply Boeing. They already suspended the dividend and the CEO is taking no salary. Many other large companies do not need government help.

For small companies the most efficient way is to funnel cash through the banks and let them make government guaranteed loans to their existing clients who already have accounts and can easily be funded and monitored by the banks. Money could be in everyone’s hands within 10 days this way. Checks to individuals will likely go through IRS like a tax refund. That can happen very fast as well. None of us wants to have a $2 trillion added to the debt, but there is simply no choice now or the whole economy would crash. Containing Dem add-ons like an extra $200 per month for Social Security is just political pork.

One possible good thing is the transfer of classes to online for college. If implemented on a ongoing scale, it would dramatically cut the cost of a degree, solve the student loan problem, and allow many more poor kids to attend classes. The other big thing is it would go a long way to ending the diversity, inclusion issues by not having all the left wing nuts protesting or creating a shutdown of freedom of speech on campus. On the flip side it would cause a major disruption to fun sex on campus. I suspect schools will want to go back to what it had been so they can grossly over charge and let students run up big loan balances to pay for the useless deans of diversity and other nonsense, plus multi-million dollar salaries and perks for the presidents and deans. Maybe we will have a whole new college culture come out of this. I doubt it, but maybe.

Retail will be further moved to online. Some retailers and malls will fail faster now. Walmart, Amazon, Target, and some others with strong online stores will be big winners. The hotel industry will have a long hard time recovering from this. Occupancy is now around 8%-10% to zero in many cases. Many hotels closed until this is over and some will never reopen. This will be most like after 2008, but much worse. It will need years to gather the cash to do renovations. The vultures will pounce very soon, just as in 2009. I have very publicly warned the hotel industry for years that there would be a black swan coming, and it would be a killer to them. I have warned that owning a hotel is a high risk business and unless you can buy in at a deep discount, the return on investment is often not worth the risk, especially when compared to other investments. Most hotels will lose money for a long time. It generally takes around 60%-65% occupancy for a hotel to make decent cash flow.

The world is way over levered now after feasting on cheap debt with limited covenants. However, banks have been pretty careful on real estate lending, so we should not have the massive problems of 2009 in real estate. The stimulus bill will bail out many borrowers, and Fannie and Freddie have already agreed to not foreclose for two months. Banks will also be accommodative and can afford to do so. The ultra-low rates will be the savior of tens of millions of borrowers. There are a lot of levered hotels and companies.

Hotels will have a struggle to get back to cash flow positive operations, so they are at real risk. For commercial real estate generally, the leverage has not been bad, and it is at very low rates. I do not expect a serious problem like we saw in 2009. The lenders and servicers will accommodate where needed, other than hotels and retail. Most owners of other real estate will go on. Many hotels are actually closed now and will struggle to get back to break even before they are so far behind their mortgage that there is no hope. This is worse than 2008 for them. Before this, the hotel industry was stagnant for revenue growth this year, and in some cases revenue was going down due to over-supply in some markets. The bankruptcy lawyers are coming back into favor just like in 2009-2015.

Apartments remain fully occupied, but might have to let some tenants be late for a while. Office and industrial will have some rent collection issues, but if Congress provides the support for small business, rents will get paid by most tenants, even if late. Vacancy will grow, but not to the degree of major defaults in most cases. Self-storage and other real estate should come out OK. This is not 2009, where there was incredibly stupid lending at higher rates, and insane leverage levels. This time the Fed and treasury are keeping the CMBS markets functioning, even if at a barely alive state at the moment. Real estate will get through this in OK shape. Development other than housing and multi will likely be very slow for a year or more. The oil patch will consolidate.

Other types of highly over levered commercial companies will get bought up at vulture prices. PE funds have over $275 billion of dry equity powder. There will not be any action on IPO’s for many months until the markets come back. Junk bonds will be really risky for a long time. You are now going to learn that bonds can be big losers if you were chasing yield. Emerging market debt is super high risk as those small countries will have real issues coming back from this since China will be operating at a much lower level. Having lived through several major crisis and crashes in my career, this too will be an opportunity for some, and a disaster for others, but in the end, the leverage will get lowered for several years, and then they will do it all over again in 12 years. That is about the cycle for how long it takes for over leverage to reappear and crash. This time is not different. It never is. The world since the 1600’s has survived all sorts of crashes, and then comes back better than ever for a while. The main thing is stay calm and ride it out. That light is at the of the tunnel, and not a train coming at you.

The stock market will bounce back and as we move into 2021. It will do well if Trump is reelected. Biden and the Dems will be bad for the market. The debt markets have been in turmoil, but the Fed and Treasury learned a lot in 2008, and are doing a lot of things to fund liquidity to keep the repo, commercial paper, and mortgage markets functioning. They have also made sure currency swap lines are kept functioning well. All critical to get through this crisis. They need Rule 13 (3) to be reinstated which allows the Fed to make loans directly to companies, which a lot of people told Congress not to end in Dodd-Frank- Congress ignored the advice so here we are just as was predicted. We can count on the Fed and Treasury to make sure the debt and currency markets remain liquid and functioning. That has made all the difference between crisis and total collapse.

The press has to stop misstating what Trump and Fauci are saying about the possible malaria drugs and other possible cures. All Trump said was I “hope” they work. “I think they will, but we will see”. Fauci has said the same, but simply added he is a scientist and he needs clinical proof, not anecdotal evidence. Trump is there to provide hope to the country as president. Fauci is there to make sure the science works and is safe. He is the reality check.

Stay safe and relax– the light is in sight at the far end of the tunnel now. I believe they will be able in 10 days to say the trend is down. The curve has flattened materially. If so, they loosen the restrictions, and people start to go back to work. Life and the market will return, your losses will be partially, and likely over time, fully recovered, and in 9 months we hope this will be a very bad memory. Life will be different, but not yet clear how. Humans recover from war, and life goes on, sometimes much improved. Keep optimistic and just hang in. Be happy you are American -we will come out of this better than the rest of the world. We had a very strong economy and low interest rates and gas prices when this started. Savings were high. That will make a huge difference. The world economy will be in very serious trouble for a long time, the EU will be near collapse, supply chains will change materially, and revolutions, or other political disruptions will become frequent. The world will be a dangerous and unpredictable place for several years. I still believe Trump gets reelected by a substantial margin.

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