What could coronavirus mean for the economy?

According to officials, a fifth of UK workers may be off sick at coronavirus peak. Picture: Getty Im

According to officials, a fifth of UK workers may be off sick at coronavirus peak. Picture: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Financial expert Peter Sharkey asks if coronavirus is a genuine threat or an example of mass panic?

My heart sank after I read a headline declaring that "a fifth of UK workers may be off sick at coronavirus peak". A fifth?

Only last year, the number of people in work reached a record high when figures showed the workforce had grown to 32.5 million. According to the latest government projections, however, should the virus spread in this country, up to 6.5 million people could eventually be absent from work.

As I write, around 85 UK residents have tested positive for the virus; I assume that figure would have to rise significantly before a mass exodus from offices and factories on the scale envisaged in the government's "worst case" scenario was triggered.

Some perspective is surely due before wholesale panic, not the virus itself, takes an unwelcome grip.

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Consider, for example, that during last year's flu season in the USA, (it usually peaks in February) more than 15 million people, around 4.5% of the total population, contracted the flu virus. An estimated 8,200 people died as a result, although the US outbreak and its consequences were not reported here, or most other places, and it certainly didn't result in widespread panic.

Yet the government insists on saying the police may have to concentrate only on the "most serious" crimes (I thought that's what they did already); that the military could be drafted in to assist the emergency services; that schools will close; that we must self-isolate or work from home and that retired doctors and nurses will be recalled to help 'on the front line'. Such pronouncements suggest there's a thin line between vigilance and panic.

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Imagine if governments, not simply our own, reacted in similar fashion to the annual flu epidemic which reportedly kills between 250,000 and 500,000 mostly elderly folks every year. Reeling off the mortality rate as bald figures often comes across as insensitive, which is not my intention. Rather, it's important we give the coronavirus, which remains a largely Chinese problem, some much-needed perspective and give thanks that we're not watching the number of flu cases rise inexorably from one news bulletin to the next.

In the wake of the ensuing panic caused by the coronavirus, stock markets have tumbled. We are, as one particularly astute investment manager noted this week "now facing a correction event". Quite.

In truth, a "correction" was inevitable; had it not been prompted by the coronavirus outbreak, it would have arrived via another route.

However, the virus's abrupt appearance, its impact upon the economy and the ease with which it has spread has affected consumer activity and particularly global supply chains; this, in turn, could have massive consequences for economic growth. Investors currently awaiting evidence of market stability before reinvesting will be mindful that once the virus is contained, stock markets are likely to rise sharply. Economic history shows that missing the first 10-12 days of a market rally can leave investors between 40-50% adrift in terms of total returns over a long period. Unfortunately, no-one has a crystal ball capable of advising when this rally will take place and although there was strong evidence that before the virus erupted the global economy was firmly in growth mode, this looks certain to pause as multi-national organisations amend their income and profit projections, especially over the next six months.

To restore order, it's probable that many of the world's central banks will stimulate their respective economies by cutting interest rates as much as they can, or by embarking on another prolonged period of quantitative easing (aka printing money), although neither measure is much use if everyone is at home "self-isolating".

Once people return to work and consumers start spending again, the economy will return to growth mode. Moreover, as markets usually respond favourably to a rapid surge in global growth and consumption, investors can expect a full-scale recovery.

To paraphrase a famous investment adage, the time to be a bold investor is the point at which others are fearful, ie buy when fund and share prices are depressed. They certainly are at the moment, but will the coronavirus spread and push prices lower, or are we witnessing an unnecessary panic and within a few months the virus will be forgotten?

No-one knows the answer, but bolder sorts who suspect we're getting into an unnecessary flap over an ultimately containable virus could generate handsome longer-term returns were they to invest now. However, those tempted to invest should do so with their eyes wide open.

TAM Asset Management Ltd offer savers the opportunity to invest their savings in Investment ISA portfolios comprising a variety of different funds pursuing long-term cautious, balanced or adventurous strategies. For further details, please visit the MoneyMapp website.

For more financial advice, check out Peter Sharkey's regular column, The Week In Numbers.

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