How the 2020 Coronavirus Stock Market Turmoil Compares to Crashes and Black Swan Events of the Modern Era

As the spread of COVID-19 continues, the financial markets have been in turmoil. 24/7 Wall St. has tracked many of the gains and losses that have been seen, as well as where the pockets of safety may remain. In the past two weeks alone, close to $9 trillion of global equity value has been lost. It’s not just the impact of the coronavirus now and the gradual return of business in China. The markets are desperately trying to price in where things will be in the weeks and months ahead, and this is one scenario that remains unknown, with more feelings of gloom than optimism.

The first rule of looking for opportunities and preserving assets over time is that it’s nearly impossible ever to pick an exact bottom and an exact top. So if this sounds like it’s “picking an exact bottom” then the point is being misunderstood. When thinking about a $9 trillion wipeout of equity values, this time is rather different from past market corrections, crashes, bear markets or whatever reference point you feel is appropriate.

Predicting recessions also can be problematic. The media was hell-bent on the “imminent recession” calls in the summer of 2019, based on improper assumptions that the worst magnifications of the trade war would come about. That didn’t happen, and the markets rallied and the economy rebounded. The timing of the coronavirus outbreak was as bad as it could have been for the financial markets in 2020. The phase-one trade agreement between the United States and China had just been signed. International trade was supposed to start increasing again and global gross domestic product was supposed to start ticking back up with a period of stable interest rates. The coronavirus spreading out of China also came about when the U.S. stock market was effectively trading at all-time highs. That puts the coronavirus in the so-called black swan event category for its financial market impact.

When considering the market crashes of the past, it’s important to keep in mind the percentages of market value lost rather than absolute dollars. After all, the value of $1,000 in 2020 is less than the same amount in 2010, 2000 and back to the 1980s.

The S&P 500 has seen a 2020 peak to trough (Feb. 28, 2020) of roughly 15.5%. It’s also important to widen out time frames for a reference point. After all, lifetimes of savings and investing aren’t measured in a day. Again, this drop is from the all-time highs, and those all-time highs are far higher than the prior all-time highs of years past. This “mini-crash,” or whatever reference investors want to use, is effectively and so far on par in a seven-day trading reference, according to Merrill Lynch data. The U.S. credit downgrade of 2011 was represented as a 15.5% drop, and the same period after the Long Term Capital Management failure of 1998 with a 13.9% drop.

Where things are larger in reference is comparing the current decline of more than 15% from trough to peak is that it’s harder to predict the outcome of a storm from right in the midst of the storm. It’s also undeniable that the coronavirus has created a storm. Merrill Lynch also referenced seven-day periods of worse reference points that were actual crashes. The Black Monday crash of 1987 saw more than a 31% drop, and the Lehman failure of 2008 during the financial crisis was referenced with a 28% drop.

The one event that most firms have refrained from referencing is what happened to the S&P after the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001. At that time, business conditions were already weak and the tech bubble had already burst about 18 months earlier. The S&P 500 promptly lost about 12% after the 9/11 terror attacks before bouncing, but that was after close to a 30% drop from the peak in 2000 to trough. The immediate rate cut after 9/11 only helped for a short-lived bounce. The S&P 500 did not create a hard bottoming out until selling zeniths were seen in July of 2002 through February of 2003.

It is way too soon to predict the final impact of the coronavirus, but for now it seems that things almost have to get worse before they can better. That’s true for the number of cases and deaths, with no cure and no vaccine. We cannot ignore the financial reference as the stock market highs were just a month ago, and it’s probably a safe bet that the spreading of the coronavirus will have resulted in many more closures of offices, schools, events, conferences, flights and so on.

To make matters potentially even worse this time around, the S&P 500 Index’s high in 2020 was roughly 120% higher than the peak of the 2007 highs and was up about 350% from the recent peak, compared with the selling zenith of March 2009 when the S&P 500 made that massive V-bottom.

Financial markets were set to open lower on Friday, March 6, and the indications are still slightly better than the S&P 500 lows from last Friday. More firms have been lowering their earnings expectations for the S&P 500 and have been making stabs to lower their U.S. GDP forecasts for 2020. Stay tuned.