In our ET Professional updates over the last few weeks, we have repeated one particular refrain.
The dominant COVID-19 narrative today is a “short and deep” economic impact.
There’s a corollary narrative here that we think is particularly important for investors, and it’s a narrative that we think is closely tied to real-world data that investors can track on their own.
The corollary COVID-19 narrative today is “pent-up demand” that drives the up-slope of a V-shaped recovery.
The “Short and Deep” Narrative
Here’s on overview of what we’re seeing in the Narrative Machine.
The narrative maps below represents all major outlet US equity markets coverage since March 1, with the bold-faced connections and nodes representing articles with language characterizing the economic effects as “temporary” or “short-term” or “V-shaped” in the first map, or language relating to “lasting” or “long-term” or “L-shaped” economic effects in the second map.
The way to read narrative maps is to look at the number and frequency of bold nodes, yes, but much more importantly you should look at the centrality and the connectivity of the bold nodes.
In the first map, focused on the language of short-term COVID-19 impact, you can see how this language is deeply connected to each of the most central clusters (general market commentary, fiscal and monetary policy, corporate earnings, etc.), and extends from those central clusters into nearly every other peripheral cluster on nearly every market sub-topic. The one exception would be any cluster that focuses on the energy sector. No one is talking about the oil & gas industry with short-term or V-shaped recovery language!
In the second map, however, focused on the language of long-term COVID-19 impact, the only topic with concentrated use of and connections driven by this language is unemployment (dark green cluster on right of graph). There is widespread pessimism about just how “short and deep” the labor market and employment effects will be, but that pessimism is isolated to only those topics.
Language about the short-term economic effects of COVID-19 is pervasive in the way we talk about markets today.
Language about the long-term economic effects of COVID-19 is not.
US Equity Market Coverage Referencing “Temporary / Short-Term” Effects
US Equity Market Coverage Referencing “Lasting / Long-Term” Effects
“Short and Deep” implies “Pent-up Demand”
When you dig into what’s actually being said in these articles and transcripts about the short-term economic impact of COVID-19, you find a corollary narrative about pent-up demand.
A strong narrative structure, like we have with “Short and Deep”, means that NEW information or missionary statements tend to be accepted if they conform to the existing narrative, and tend to be rejected or marginalized if they oppose the existing narrative. This is what people often refer to as “confirmation bias” if you want to take a cognitive or behavioral economics approach, or you can express it as a rational outcome of Bayesian information theory if that’s your cup of tea.
We’re in the middle of earnings season right now, which means that most of the missionary statements we hear come from CEOs and CFOs on their quarterly earnings call, followed by buy-side and sell-side missionary statements about those calls, followed by media amplification of the missionary statements that fit the “Short and Deep” narrative and cartoonification or downplaying of the statements that don’t.
Since these earnings calls are focused on what just happened in Q1 and what is being experienced in Q2 (almost every company has pulled their long-range guidance) it is nearly impossible for these calls to change our minds about “Short and Deep”.
What happens instead is that the market reaction to many Q1 earnings calls is a positive response to news that was “not as bad as expected.” That’s not a prediction about those companies or their specific earnings situations (we really have no idea), but an observation that the narrative structure provided the language to absorb reports that could be aligned with the “depth” of the expected outcome. In other words, there’s a structural narrative asymmetry to positive earnings “surprises” today, not because these companies are doing surprisingly well in real-world, but because they compare well to what’s dominating the way we talk about these companies in narrative-world. Narrative expectations become a strong market tail-wind.
It’s not that market missionaries are lying about what they are experiencing in real-world. On the contrary, virtually every missionary statement we’ve looked at has been consistent in expressing clearly and earnestly the depth of the problem in Q1 and continuing into Q2. But that directness has in turn granted those parties credibility to express optimism about the briefness of the revenue/earnings problem, so that the narrative of “Yay, Pent-up Demand!” and rapid economic repair in Q3 and Q4 becomes common knowledge – what everyone knows that everyone knows.
And that’s the catalyst we think could reverse the current market-positive narrative structure.
If real-world demand for goods and services remains at these abysmal levels … if language about the long-term economic consequences of COVID-19 begins to spread beyond the unemployment cluster … then the common knowledge of “Pent-up Demand” will diminish and the narrative structure of this market can become profoundly skewed to the downside.
What investors should watch for
What would we be looking for to judge whether this narrative structure is reversing? Here’s our list:
- 2H 2020 Guidance: The rubber will begin to meet the road in updated guidance on the second half of 2020 that we should begin to see following the relaxation of stay-at-home orders throughout late May and early June. Because of the “Pent-up demand” narrative, we expect a lot of the initial reports (correctly or incorrectly) to be passed through that existing framing. But the guidance from management that will follow that has a different objective – they want to beat, and they want to get grants with optionality priced to permit those beats to benefit them. We believe there will be more information (in terms of influencing investors to change their minds) in the guidance updates in June/July than in any corporate missionary behavior about COVID-19 to date.
- Real-World Retail Knock-On Narratives: The delay in retail bankruptcies in expectation of liquidation sales that will accompany a relaxation in lockdowns is not a novel observation. There are, however, credit and real estate funds with meaningful exposure here that almost certainly sought and will seek to dampen impacts on Q1 – and yes, Q2 – marks by not accounting for the full coming destruction in value to which they are exposed. The same goes for oil & gas, where hope springs eternal on 1.1-1.3x marks which relax the typical commodity price-driven model approach on the basis of ignoring “short-term volatility.” Real world BKs cause real-world portfolio illiquidity. Be aware.
- Second Half 2020 Lockdowns: As we discussed in a recent ET Live, we think that the fundamental corollary to housing prices in 2007/2008 is the actual, real-world ability of COVID-19 to cause new hot spots that lead to recurrence of stay-at-home orders in some US regions later in 2020. If these re-lockdowns occur, they will place enormous pressure on the “length of time” narrative about COVID-19’s economic effects.
- Democratic Political Narratives: Investors should expect the COVID-19 pandemic to be ruthlessly politicized as part of the 2020 election in ways that it has not been politicized to-date. They should furthermore expect the promotion of new narratives – especially by the Democrats – about the economic reality and the length over which the effects of that reality will be felt. There will be “Trump sank us into a depression” narratives. They do not exist today – at all. They will be new, and they should be monitored.
- GOP Political Policy: Election year politics don’t just show up in campaign slogans and rhetoric about “Trump sinking us into a depression” or “Trump doing everything to rescue Americans.” They show up in policy. The embedded assumption in markets that fiscal policy will keep supporting small businesses and households is part of the narrative structure now, and the White House cannot allow that narrative to falter. This IS their reelection strategy. Yes, the DNC will try to hang a depression narrative around Donald Trump’s neck. The President and the Fed and the GOP-controlled Senate, however, will continue aggressive policy action to ensure a strong S&P 500 and other cartoons of better-than-expected economic outcomes.
The nice thing about this list, I think, is that fundamental investors and allocators are well positioned to evaluate these items. You don’t need AI or a massive team of analysts or even the Narrative Machine to keep up here. Meanwhile, though, we will keep focusing our research on the short-term versus long-term linguistic structure of how we talk about markets. Together, we will get through this!