The COVID-19 Rate of Change—Just One of Several Market Anomalies to Watch

Advice to the Advisors

Sheaff Brock | COVID-19 Rate of Change may be explanation for strong market

The COVID-19 Rate of Change—Just One of Several Market Anomalies to Watch

It’s a puzzlement that has clients biting their nails—and worse. How, they wonder, can the market be this strong when the news continues to be so bad? Here are three important factors worth discussing with them in detail.

Anomaly #1: Death Rate v. Rate of Change

On March 23, 2020, two things happened. The COVID-19 death “rate of change” peaked, with a steady descent following. At the very same time, the stock market bottomed, then began a sustained rise.

To be sure, the news continues to document a rising pandemic death toll. According to Johns Hopkins, on March 23rd the number of Americans who had died from COVID-19 was 550. Now almost 100,000 are dead. Indeed, on an absolute basis, as shown in the chart below, deaths from COVID-19 continues to rise sharply, particularly as testing becomes more available.

Total U.S. deaths from COVID-19 on an absolute basis | Sheaff Brock looks at COVID-19 Rate of Change

What goes largely unreported in the news, Sheaff Brock Managing Director Dave Gilreath points out, is that, since March 23rd, the COVID rate of change has been trending lower and lower. Published graphs showing the number of deaths reported each day are useful, but “readers are still left trying to discern the extent to which the rise from one day to the next is larger or smaller,” explains.

Total U.S. Deaths on COVID-19 Rate-of-Change Basis | Sheaff Brock

Anomaly #2: The Positive Implication of Negative Numbers

“No other infectious-disease outbreak has had more than a tiny effect on U.S. stock-market volatility,” a Kellogg Insight article notes, not even the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920, which killed 2% of the world population. Possible explanations offered by the authors for “the unprecedented Stock-Market reaction to COVID-19” include the richness of information and the interconnectedness of the economy.

The word “unprecedented” might be another signal indicating the need to redirect attention to the “positive” implication of negative numbers, Gilreath explains. The AAII Sentiment Survey reading (published by the American Association of Individual Investors) shows that bullishness is at its lowest level of 2020, more than 1 standard deviation from normal. In the 265 times that bullishness has exceeded 1 SD from average since 1987, the average S&P return over the following 12 month period was 17%.

Anomaly #3 – Market Weighting

Yet a third trend deserves our attention, adds Gilreath—market weighting. Until 17 or so years ago, Barbara Friedberg points out in U.S. News, capitalization-weighted index funds were the only way to invest passively, with stocks selected to match the list—and the proportion—of stocks in an index such as the S&P 500. With the inception of the Index Funds S&P 500 Equal Weight (INDEX), stocks in the portfolio are apportioned equally.

In the current period (beginning March 24, 2020), there has been a statistically significant surge for equal-weight S&P.  Based on the 2009 history, that surge likely signals a change in “leadership” (from growth to value equities). More important, the 2009 surge marked the point when the market was trending higher, coming off its 2009 lows.

Sheaff Brock | Strategas Research | S&P Surge Comparisons

There is certainly a plethora of information being disseminated, Gilreath agrees, but in one sense, the utility of that information is flawed if it includes only COVID-19 death statistics and “unprecedented volatility,” neglecting to consider the influence on the stock market of bullish sentiment numbers, market weighting shifts, and the COVID-19 rate of change.




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