The Market Impact of the Wuhan Coronavirus

John Hernick

In a year when U.S markets are hitting all-time highs, and key markets abroad have been relatively stable, the last thing anyone wants to see is a deadly viral outbreak which has the potential to shake up consumer confidence and pose a major threat to the global order at the start of 2020.

For the last month, public health officials have been trying to deal with a deadly respiratory infection which originated in a seafood market in Wuhan, the capital of Central China’s Hubei province. Since officials first identified the virus, known officially as “Coronavirus 2019n-CoV, or “Coronavirus” for short, confirmed cases in Wuhan alone have risen to nearly 3000, total deaths have hit 131, and known cases have been confirmed in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, the United States, Canada and others. In addition to the obvious global health problems, economic concerns are mounting as experts investigate.

According to Chinese economists, the coronavirus outbreak has the potential to cost more than 40 billion yuan ($5.8 billion), which would knock about 1 percentage point off China’s 2020 growth rate. These estimates are largely based on preliminary assessments of the situation and a comparison with the impact from the 2003 SARS endemic. This damage could be exponentially worse with the coronavirus, especially since China’s economy has become increasingly reliant on services and consumer spending than it was early 2000s, when the SARS endemic hit.

Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon weighed in on the state of the global economy during an interview at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland earlier this month. At first, Solomon reflected relatively high levels of financial optimism heading into 2020, saying that markets are strong and consumer confidence is high. He went on to say that this positive economic activity is likely to continue, “barring some exogenous event.”

When asked specifically about the outbreak, he was quick to categorize it as exactly “the kind of exogenous event that could affect confidence.” He continued, discussing measures Sachs and other financial institutions will take internally to analyze and monitor these types of threats and what these historically have meant for returns on the macroeconomic level. Like the Chinese economists, Solomon also drew the parallel to the SARS virus, specifically the negative impacts that outbreak had on risk assets and markets.

The world’s leading firms will continue to monitor and analyze the threats of the outbreak, especially as the number infected and death tolls rise and the disease scales in magnitude. At this point, however, even expert economic opinions and forecasts surrounding long-term impact remain largely speculative, as they are characterized by precedent and subject to the whims of the unpredictable and volatile nature of epidemiology. 

Given the early nature of the outbreak, the Coronavirus has yet to show its full effects, and will be sure to pose challenges for the world’s health and financial leaders until it is contained and the threats to both human capital and investment have been eliminated.