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Coronavirus keeps stock markets on rocky ride

The spreading virus, and the moves to combat it, will likely keep the markets in turmoil for a while.
The best of times and the worst of times on Wall Street, all in less than a week.
The best of times and the worst of times on Wall Street, all in less than a week. [ Associated Press ]
Published Mar. 3, 2020
Updated Mar. 3, 2020

Your retirement account likely took a hit in February, one of the worst months for the S&P 500 since the 1930s. The index finished down more than 8 percent, after a massive drop last week.

On Monday, it jumped about 5 percent.

With coronavirus spreading, get ready for more ups and downs, some of them severe. That appears to be the consensus among professionals. The virus has already mucked with supply chains, especially for technology companies and manufacturers with strong ties to China, where the virus first spread and has killed nearly 3,000 people.

The looming contagion has also sowed fear — some of it unfounded. But stock markets don’t thrive on fear. They prefer certainty, or something that resembles certainty. Jitters lead to irrational behavior, which is a gateway to panic. “Take the long view on stocks" seems like quaint advice when everyone else is scrambling for the comfort of treasury bills or gold.

You’ve likely heard that the stock market is a poor proxy for the overall economy. Only about 55 percent of U.S. adults own stocks, and the richest investors own the lion’s share, making the stock market something of a sideshow in the lives of most Americans. But in an economy dominated by spending, the prospect that people will think twice about going out to eat, shop or to find entertainment won’t help Main Street or Wall Street.

The Tampa Bay area is in the thick of tourist season, with March historically drawing the largest crowds. Will fears of getting on cramped airplanes or standing in lines for amusement park rides affect the numbers? If we get through it unscathed, what about summer destinations scattered across the country that rely on an influx of visitors?

Residents in some U.S. cities have started to stock pile supplies, but that frenzied buying won’t do much to mitigate a bigger downturn. The specter of millions of Americans holed up in homes with giant bottles of sanitizer and bags of Fritos while binge watching Better Call Saul on Netflix keeps Federal Reserve economists awake at night.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

On the positive side — at least for stocks — big gains have soon followed many of the biggest drops. The downturns test the mettle of the most rational and disciplined investors, but they usual recover if they don’t sell when times get tough.

Ben Carlson at the Wealth of Common Sense blog looked at 25 of the worst months for the S&P 500, a group that included February along with several from the Great Depression and the Great Recession. One year later, stocks were higher more than half the time. Three years later, stocks had risen nearly three-quarters of the time.

Cumulatively, stocks gained 14.3 percent a year after the 25 bad months, and 42.5 percent after three years, he found.

“Every investor is told to buy low and sell high,” Carlson concluded. “But most don’t realize that buy low typically works out to buy low, then buy lower, then buy even lower, and once you really hate yourself, buy lower than you thought was possible.”

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Good advice for what could be a rocky ride.