Financial markets can be bewildering at the best of times. But the coronavirus has made the task of understanding them so much harder.
The markets are supposed to anticipate economic developments. Yet early in the year, stocks ignored the looming pandemic. Only after the coronavirus hit hard in the United States did prices collapse like a deflating balloon.
By late March, thanks to the intervention of the Federal Reserve, stocks began rising sharply, even though the death toll was rising, unemployment claims were skyrocketing and the economy was shriveling.
These momentum shifts raise critical questions for ordinary people who have put their savings into the markets.
Have we seen the worst of it or will the recent stock gains, amid a devastating global health crisis, prove to be ephemeral? With so many medical, epidemiological and economic issues still unresolved, how can an ordinary person survive the treacherous financial shifts that are now so commonplace?
Our quarterly report on investing can’t answer these pressing questions about the markets definitively. But it provides plenty of analysis and, perhaps, some clues about what may lie ahead.
Aspects of the current downturn resemble those of previous episodes in financial history. But the unique and lethal character of the pandemic adds considerable complexity to any market analysis. In a survey of what investors have experienced so far this year, our reporter says strategists can see more clearly the farther out they look.
The gigantic bond market isn’t merely a critical source of funding for corporations and governments. It is also a primary source of income and stability for investors, especially during periods of economic turmoil when the stock market plummets.
In an analysis of the bond market, we found that core mutual funds holding long-term Treasuries generally held up well during the latest downturn. But riskier bonds were hammered and the prices of some large exchange-traded funds came under pressure until the Fed stepped in.
Despite financial problems nearly everywhere else, one enormous sector of the economy continues to be well funded: what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. Companies with rich military contracts appear to be well hedged against recession.
But few mutual funds and E.T.F.s concentrate sufficiently in military stocks to make them an efficient way of investing in the sector. For that, you will probably need to hold individual stocks, our reporter found.
In a satirical essay, our columnist found that scores of businesses have suddenly started to care deeply about him. He suspects it’s because they desperately need his money.