Apr 2, 2020 - Economy & Business

Coronavirus ushers in era of uncertainty

Felix Salmon, author of Edge

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

At a time of crisis, we tend to crave certainty — the one thing we have less of than ever.

The big picture: The markets, of course, are full of uncertainty. Record-high volatility (just look at the oil price today) indicates that price discovery is breaking down.

  • No one has a clue what may or may not be "priced in" to the market in terms of how the virus is going to progress or how the economy is going to behave.
  • Some forecasters see second-quarter earnings declining by 10%; others see a decline of 120%. And we're already in the second quarter!

The virus comes with even bigger error bars. (I could be totally wrong, for instance, about our future willingness to mingle.)

  • The number of undetected cases, the fatality rate, how likely asymptomatic individuals transmit the virus, how dangerous it is to touch an infected surface or to pass within 6 feet of others, how family members in close quarters don't get infected, how long the incubation period is, whether recovery implies immunity and for how long, whether the virus is seasonal — all these and many more basic facts remain unknown.
  • Social questions have even bigger unknowns. What is the correct public-health strategy? How strict should lockdowns be? Should wearing masks be encouraged or mandated? Do masks remind people not to touch their face or make them touch their face more? How much certainty should national authorities evince, given the unknowns?
  • National infection rates are equally unknown. The 95% confidence interval for the proportion of Swedes infected by the virus is 0.8% to 8.4%; in Spain, the number infected is estimated to be somewhere between 1.8 million and 19 million.

Why it matters: It's unnatural to live with such uncertainty, so we all cobble together our own set of beliefs about what is true. Then, because we all have different beliefs, finding common ground becomes very hard.

  • Weisberg's Law states that "Any Jew more religious than you are is mentally insane, while any Jew less religious is a self-hater."
  • Something similar can be said about virus paranoia. Everybody more paranoid than you has gone way overboard, while everybody less paranoid is not only putting themselves at risk but is acting in a deeply socially irresponsible manner.

The bottom line: The virus is eroding the shared norms and beliefs that underpin both markets and societies. The consequences are unforeseeable, but unlikely to be good.

Go deeper

Updated 6 hours ago - Health

U.S. coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios. This graphic includes "probable deaths" that New York City began reporting on April 14.

Florida reported on Wednesday its largest number of new novel coronavirus cases in a single day since April 17. 1,317 people tested positive to take the state total to 58,764, per the state's health department. Despite the rise, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said bars and clubs could reopen on Friday.

By the numbers: More than 107,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus and over 1.8 million people have tested positive, per data from Johns Hopkins. More than 479,000 Americans have recovered and over 18 million tests have been conducted.

The risk asset rally continues as stock market rebounds

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Risk assets have jumped over the past week and continued their rally on Wednesday, with the S&P 500 gaining for a fourth straight day and posting its highest close since March 4, while the Nasdaq ended the day just 1.4% below its all-time high.

What it means: If it hadn't been evident before, Wednesday's market action made clear that the bulls are back in charge.

Trump's troubles grow, spread

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

President Trump is confronting the most dire political environment of his presidency, with his support dropping fast from Texas to Wisconsin, even among his base of religious and older voters. 

Why it matters: Top Republicans tell Axios that Trump's handling of the nation's civil unrest, including his hasty photo op at St. John's Church after the violent clearing of Lafayette Park, make them much more worried about his chance of re-election than they were one week ago.