Economic toll of virus sinks in, duration remains an unknown

By | March 7, 2020


The Dow Jones Industrial Average over the past five days: up 1,293, down 785, up 1,173, down 969, down 256. The Dow sank as many as 894 points Friday before recovering much of its losses. The VIX, an index known as Wall Street’s fear barometer, touched levels not seen since the financial crisis. The uncertainty and potential economic damage from the coronavirus deepened this week. Sectors that cater to almost any public activity — movie theaters, business conference organizers, hotels, airlines and amusement parks — have lost billions as investors flee to areas they perceive as safer, like U.S. Treasury notes, which now pay paltry amounts that are far less than inflation. Following is a brief look at how things are changing in the economy and the workplace today as the outbreak widens.

HEADWINDS: Germany’s biggest airline, Lufthansa, says it will cut up to 50% of its flights in the next few weeks, depending on how the virus outbreak develops. It said it had seen a drastic drop in reservations, with all regions now affected. Lufthansa, which also owns Swiss airlines and several smaller regional European carriers, operates over 83,000 flights a month. The airline earlier announced plans to cancel all flights to and from Israel for three weeks after Israeli authorities announced tough restrictions on travelers from several countries.

The airline industry is among the hardest hit since the outbreak, forcing carriers to reassess their near-term financial expectations. An industry group said the spreading coronavirus could cost airlines as much as $113 billion in lost revenue. That figure, released Thursday, is four times the number released just two weeks ago by the The International Air Transport Association, which is imploring governments for assistance.

Declining reservations have rippled outward to commercial aerospace companies. “The impact on airline profitability appears to be worsening by the day, and the spread of the virus and the impact on air travel has rapidly exceeded expectations of just a few days and weeks ago,” wrote Ken Herbert, an industry analyst with Canaccord Genuity.

SHIPWRECK: Passengers on a cruise ship off the California coast were instructed to stay in their cabins as they awaited test results Friday that could show whether the coronavirus is circulating among the more than 3,500 people aboard. Test kits were lowered onto the Grand Princess by rope from a military helicopter and they’ve been sent for analysis at a lab with the ship moored at sea just off of San Francisco, where it has been ordered to remain. Meanwhile, cruisers with upcoming trips complained on Twitter about difficulties getting cruise operators to offer refunds for canceling trips. Cruise stocks have been hammered since the outbreak began. Norwegian Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean have both lost more than 50% of their stock value since the start of the year, while Carnival Cruise Lines, which owns the ship stuck off the California coast, has seen its stock drop 47%. Analysts expect cruise companies to offer heavy discounts as coronavirus fears lead to canceled trips. The cruise industry provided 1.2 million jobs and paid $50.24 billion in wages and salaries in 2018, providing an estimated $150 billion in global economic impact, according to Cruise Lines International Association, a Washington-based group that represents more than 95% of global cruise capacity.

THE MACRO VIEW: Citing the outbreak Friday, Moody’s lowered its baseline growth forecasts for G20 economies to 2.1%, from 2.4%. It lowered its U.S. growth forecast for 2020 to 1.5%, from 1.7% and dialed back growth expectations in China as well. Moody’s said more downgrades are possible.

“Several plausible developments could lead to a far more negative scenario than our baseline forecast,” said Moody’s Vice President Madhavi Bokil. “A sustained pullback in consumption, coupled with extended closures of businesses, would hurt earnings, drive layoffs and weigh on sentiment. Such conditions could ultimately feed self-sustaining recessionary dynamics.”

Citi believes that central banks worldwide need to counter growing market uncertainty. “The optimal policy response to the reduction in demand due to the virus outbreak is likely to be fiscal action,” said Pernille Henneberg in a note to clients. However, on Tuesday, the U.S. Federal Reserve in a surprise move cut its benchmark interest rate by a sizable half-percentage point in an effort to support the economy.

Shares rallied, but only briefly. The Dow ended Friday down 1%.

The White House on Friday said its considering federal support for industries absorbing the brunt of the fallout. Larry Kudlow, director of the president’s National Economic Council, told reporters that the administration is not looking at a massive federal relief plan, but rather a “timely and targeted and micro.”

President Donald Trump signed an $8.3 billion measure Friday to help tackle the coronavirus outbreak, but Kudlow said that money was directed at the public health system.

STOCKPILE ECONOMY: The spread of coronavirus, which has sickened more than 100,000 people worldwide and killed more than 3,400, has led to a wave of stockpiling. People are loading up on canned goods, frozen dinners, toilet paper, and cleaning products. Heavy supply runs are expected to last for weeks, resulting in a boon c or stores and also food delivery services.

Costco’s Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti described the buying frenzy as “off the charts″ in a conference call this week. Shares of Wholesale Corp. of jumped almost 11% this week, one of the few gainers on Wall Street.

Instacart has reported a surge in demand for pantry items such as powdered milk and canned goods, as well as personal care products like hand sanitizer and vitamins. Sales of hand sanitizers in the U.S. soared 73% in the four weeks ending Feb. 22 compared with the same period last year, according to market research firm Nielsen. Sales of thermometers spiked 47% during that same period. Online purchases of toilet paper have nearly doubled and non-perishable items like canned goods rose nearly 70% during the January and February period, according to Adobe Analytics.

“This is a big time of anxiety, and we know the biggest source of anxiety is uncertainty,” says Stewart Shankman, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University. “People are trying to get a sense of control by buying things you really don’t need. It’s a false sense of control.”

AIRLINES STOP FALLING: Maybe it was bargain hunters, but airline stocks flew a bit higher on Friday, one day after getting pummeled on bad news about COVID-19. Delta Air Lines rose about 2%, with most other major U.S. carriers rising by smaller percentages.

Thursday’s sell-off was triggered when Southwest Airlines warned of a “significant decline” in bookings and a rise in cancellations, and an industry trade group estimated that airlines globally could lose up to $113 billion in revenue this year. On Friday, Cowen analyst Helane Becker said the virus will test airlines’ claim that consolidation makes them better able to withstand big shocks.

Becker said airlines will park some planes and reduce schedules. She predicted that the demand collapse will bottom out in April, but if virus fears extend throughout 2020, “all bets are off.”

FUN vs. FEAR: The entertainment industry is suffering extensive damage with parks being shut down and people avoiding public spaces. Shares of movie theater chains like AMC Entertainment Holdings, Cinemark Holdings and Imax Corp. have slumped more than 30% in the last three months. The release of the James Bond film “No Time To Die” has been pushed back from its planned release in April, to November on hopes that the outbreak will have abated.

Amusement parks could get hit by a double whammy with fewer people willing to travel or willing to be a part of large crowds. Walt Disney Co.’s Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland parks have been closed since late January. The company announced earlier this week that its parks in Japan will be closed until the middle of the month. Shares of other theme park companies, like Six Flags, Cedar Fair and SeaWorld Entertainment have fallen between 30% and 45% in the past month.plan

Gyms are also getting hit on the anticipation that health buffs will shift to workouts at home. Planet Fitness has fallen 22% this month in heavy trading. Brunswick, which sells fitness gear, is down an equal percentage.

BUSINESS NOT AS USUAL: New disruptions in the work place are picking up pace. Gap closed its New York office and is asking employees to work from home until further notice after one of its employees became infected. The San Francisco clothing chain told The Associated Press that the individual was not in the office Thursday and is recovering at home. It could not be learned how the Gap employee contracted COVID-19.

Microsoft has asked its employees who can work from home to do so in the Seattle area. This means there’s less of a need for many of the company’s hourly workers, but Microsoft said it will continue to pay those workers their regular pay during this period.

Microsoft-owned career networking service LinkedIn told San Francisco Bay Area employees work from home if they can. LinkedIn, based in Sunnyvale, California, is also postponing all non-essential business travel and not participating in external events in March and April.

Facebook temporarily closed a Seattle office after a worker was diagnosed with the virus. Amazon this week said one of its employees in Seattle, and two in Milan had contracted the coronavirus. All were quarantined. The company told told its Seattle area employees to work from home if possible.

Walmart restricted cross-border international travel to the most critical business trips, according to an internal memo shared by the company. Trips to its stores and clubs will continue, but the country’s largest employer has restricted travel to conferences, trade shows and other events. It canceled its U.S. Customer Conference in Dallas Dallas next week, opting to hold a virtual conference in its place.

City officials in Austin, Texas, announced the cancellation of the South by Southwest arts and technology festival. An economic impact report found that last year the festival contributed $355.9 million to the local economy.

ENERGY: Oil prices slumped more than 9% after talks between OPEC and non-member allies like Russia ended Friday without a deal on cutting oil production. The global economy was already slowing and the spread of the virus is certain to be a further drag on energy use. A barrel of oil could be had for about $42. The price was $60 per barrel at the start of the year, and that has fallen 17% in just the past month.


The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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