The coronavirus is scary – but it's irrelevant to your investments

The spread of the coronavirus is causing alarm around the world. And, while it could be a serious short-term threat to human health, it’s not something that should affect your investment decisions. John Stepek explains why.

(Image credit: 2020 Getty Images)

“World financial markets rocked by China coronavirus”... “Global markets swoon as lethal virus in China spreads”... “China stocks plunge after authorities lock down Wuhan”... those are just some of the business headlines we’ve seen as the outbreak of coronavirus in China starts to spread across the world. And, of course, the newspapers’ front pages are much, much more aggressive in their sensationalising of the story.

Is this something that you, as an investor, need to worry about? The short answer is “no”. Horrible things happen in the world all the time. But when it comes to investing, disease outbreaks, terrorist attacks, and even wars, can largely be placed in the same category: they are disruptive, they are tragic, they have a potentially significant human cost, but they are in the short term usually localised and frequently priced in rapidly.

Take the SARS outbreak of 2003, for example. That was bad – worse so far than the coronavirus outbreak. It grabbed a lot of headlines and it did have an effect on economic growth in the areas and sectors that were hardest hit. It was a disaster for an airline industry still reeling from the US terrorist attacks of September 2001. And it was estimated to have knocked between one and two percentage points off Chinese GDP growth in 2003 (though bear in mind that Chinese GDP was a lot smaller back then).

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Coronavirus could certainly put a dent in Chinese activity. It could also affect the travel industry. Equally though, as the researchers at Capital Economics point out, if you want to worry about something in China, you’d be better off worrying about a probable slowdown in the construction market, amid “tighter access to financing and subdued sales”.

Just to be very clear in our hypersensitive times – none of this is to diminish the seriousness of the situation or the human cost here. Global pandemics have happened in the past and they have been utterly catastrophic. The Black Death arguably changed the course of history; the Spanish Flu in 1918 killed more people than World War I.

And if you’re a short-term trader who likes to gamble then there may well be opportunities out there. Gold likes bad news, the travel industry will take a hit from restrictions on movement, and there are probably biotech companies out there that will get a short-term share price boost simply because they are conducting research that is vaguely related to the terms in the headlines.

But none of these things matter from an investment point of view if you consider yourself to be a long-term investor. If we’re looking at the Black Death, you have more important things to worry about (and physical gold is the thing you want to own a bit of). If it’s closer to SARS, or the various bird flu outbreaks we’ve seen, then there’s nothing to do, bar ride out the volatility.

And if you are sitting there today, as an ostensibly long-term investor, looking at your airline stocks or Chinese stocks and wondering if you should sell them – well, that suggests that you aren’t sure why you bought them in the first place.

Because I can tell you one thing for sure, when you invested in those assets, your rationale was definitely not: “I’m buying these because I don’t think there’s going to be a pandemic in the near future."

So if this describes how you’re feeling, then it’s time to review your portfolio and put a sensible asset allocation plan in place. (We’ve got more on that here).

John Stepek

John is the executive editor of MoneyWeek and writes our daily investment email, Money Morning. John graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news. John joined MoneyWeek in 2005.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.