Is coronavirus driving a recession, depression or an economic hit like no other? What does it mean for the bear market in shares? – Shane Oliver

Is coronavirus driving a recession, depression or an economic hit like no other? What does it mean for the bear market in shares? - Shane Oliver

Global and Australian shares have fallen well beyond the 20%
decline commonly used to delineate a bear market. From their
highs to their recent lows major share markets have had
roughly 35% falls as investors have moved to factor in a big hit
to growth from coronavirus shutdowns. Recession now looks
inevitable and they tend to be associated with deep and long
bear markets, but now there is even talk of depression
suggesting an even deeper bear market. In reality, there are big
differences now compared to past recessions and the Great
Depression, so it really looks like an economic hit like no other
with very different implications for the bear market in shares.
But let’s first look at past bear markets as they provide some
lessons for investors regardless of the cause.

The two bears – gummy & grizzly

There are 2 types of bear markets in shares: 

“gummy” bear markets with falls around 20% meeting the
technical definition many apply for a bear market but where
a year after falling 20% the market is up (like in 1998 in the
US, 2011 and 2015-16 for Australian & global shares); and 
 “grizzly” bear markets where falls are a lot deeper and
usually longer lived (like in 1973-74, US and global shares
through the tech wreck or the GFC). 

I can’t claim the terms “gummy bear” and “grizzly bear” as I first
saw them applied by stockbroker Credit Suisse a few years
ago. But they are a good way to conceptualise bear markets.
Grizzly bears maul investors but gummy bears eventually leave
a nicer taste (like the lollies!). The next table takes a closer look
at bear markets. It shows conventionally defined bear markets
in Australian shares since 1900 – where a bear market is a 20%
decline that is not fully reversed within 12 months. The first
column shows bear markets, the second shows the duration of
their falls and the third shows the size of the falls. The fourth
shows the percentage change in share prices 12 months after
the initial 20% decline. The final column shows the size of the
rebound over the first 12 months from the low.

Since 1900 there have been 12 gummy bear markets (in black)
and six grizzly bears (in red). Several points stand out. 

First, gummy bear markets tend to be shorter & see smaller
declines around 26% compared to 46% for the grizzly bears.
Second, the average rally over 12 months after the initial
20% fall is 15% for the gummy bear markets but it’s a 23%
decline for the grizzly bear markets. 
Third, the deeper grizzly bear markets are invariably
associated with recession, whereas the milder gummy bear
markets including the 1987 share market crash tend not to
be. All the six grizzly bear markets, excepting that of 1951-
52, saw either a US or Australian recession or both whereas
less than half of the gummy bear markets saw recession.
It’s also the case for the US share market.
• Finally, once the bear market ends the rebound is strong
with an average gain of 29%. Trying to time this is hard with
many who get out on the way down finding they don’t get
back in until the market has risen above where they sold!

Recession versus depression or something else? 

So, one of the key messages from history is that if we have a
recession then the bear market will likely be grizzly and severe
with markets even lower than they are today in 12 months’ time.
It’s not necessarily that simple though as the shock this time is
very different to those seen in the past. But first the bad news.
Recession now looks inevitable. There is now even talk of
“depression”. While there is a huge unknown around how long it
will take to control the virus and hence how long the shutdowns
will last it is looking clear that the short term hit to GDP will be
deeper than anything seen in the post WW2 period hence the
increasing references to the pre-war depression:

Chinese business conditions PMIs for February fell an
unprecedented 24 points due to shutdowns starting 23rd
January. Consistent with this Chinese economic activity
indicators are down 20% from levels a year ago. Chinese
March quarter GDP could well be down 10% or so. 
Business conditions PMIs for the US, Eurozone, Japan and
Australia all plunged in March as lockdowns ramped up. The
average decline for these countries composite business
conditions PMIs was an unprecedented 12 pts. This takes
them below levels seen in the GFC. And the shutdowns
have only just started so further falls are likely in April. So
like China, developed countries could conceivably see 10%
or so falls in GDP centred around the June quarter.

By way of example the next chart shows the industry makeup of the Australian economy. The shutdowns will see a
large hit to roughly 25% of the Australian economy,
particularly accommodation & culture, retailing & real estate.

Big differences v past recessions and depressions

But while the slump in economic activity may be deeper than
anything seen in the post war period, depression may not be
the best description. Most definitions of depression focus on it
being over several years and seeing a very deep fall in GDP
compared to a recession which is shorter and shallower. The
current hit to economic activity may be very deep but it won’t necessarily be longer than past recessions. And there is good
reason to believe that if the virus comes under control in the
next 2-6 months and we minimize the collateral damage from
the shutdowns that the hit to activity may be shorter. There are
big differences between the current situation and that of past
recessions and Great Depression of the 1930s:

First, recessions and The Great Depression (which saw
GDP contract by 36% over 4 years and unemployment rise
to 25% in the US and GDP fall by 9.4% in Australia with a
rise in unemployment to 20%) were preceded by a period of
excess in terms of investment, consumer discretionary
spending, private debt growth and inflation that had to be
unwound. This time around there has been no generalised
period of excess and there has been no large-scale
monetary tightening to bring on a downturn. 
Second, monetary policy was tightened in the lead up to
past recessions and in the early phase of the Great
Depression whereas global monetary policy was eased last
year and that easing has accelerated this month with rate
cuts, a renewed ramp up of quantitative easing (QE) and
central banks around the world establishing various ways to
ensure credit flows to the economy. In the 1930s banks
were simply allowed to fail. Now they are being supported
by ultra-cheap funding. Much of this owes to the GFC
experience which has made it easier for central banks to
now ramp up QE and introduce support mechanisms. 
Third, going into the Great Depression fiscal policy was
tightened to balance budgets whereas in the last month we
have seen massive and still growing global fiscal policy
stimulus swamping that of the GFC. The latest US fiscal
stimulus package alone is around 9% of US GDP.

Fourth, there has been no trade war such as the SmootHawley 20% tariffs on US imports that were met by global
retaliation and saw global trade collapse in the 1930s.

The bottom line is that while we may see the biggest hit to
global and Australian GDP since the 1930s thanks to the
shutdowns, there are big differences compared to the
Depression suggesting that a long drawn out global downturn is
not inevitable. Basically, it’s a disruption to normal activity
caused by the need to stay at home. In fact, growth could
rebound quickly once the virus is under control and policy
stimulus impacts. Which in turn should benefit share markets
and could see this latest bear market turn into a gummy bear
market rather than a grizzly bear market. Of course, at this point
we are still waiting for convincing evidence that markets have
bottomed. And the key is that the number of new cases of
coronavirus starts to slow and that collateral damage from the
shutdowns are kept to a minimum.

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