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As the coronavirus spreads, these stocks are the most exposed

January 30, 2020, 12:00 AM UTC

The new coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China has already taken a heavy toll.

Since the World Health Organization became aware of the outbreak on Dec. 31, 2019, there have been 4,593 confirmed cases—4,537 in China, including 106 deaths. Two of the 56 other cases are in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Two human ones, that is. Because of massive disruption of business and society in China, the virus has leaped into the markets. An immediate panic over last weekend had hit stocks: between last Friday and the following Monday, the Dow was down 1.6%, losing 453.9. The S&P 500 was off by the same percentage. The Nasdaq dropped by 1.9% and the Russell 2000 had just over a 1% loss.

The indexes saw significant recoveries by Tuesday and, from a broad view, things are fine. “A couple of percentage points is a sell-off,” said Craig Turner, a senior commodities broker with Daniels Trading. “It’s not some kind of black Friday crash.”

Dig down a bit, though, and at the company level, there is plenty of worry. In some sectors, such as travel, hospitality, and luxury goods, many businesses heavily depend on revenues from China and are struggling to contain the contagion, both physically and fiscally.

And then there’s a question of whether such an event could trigger a longer-lasting reaction from markets that have been sitting high and courting a blow-off top and bear market.

Corporations in the trenches

In the week from Tuesday, Jan. 21 to Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, the major drop in the S&P 500 was split unevenly by sector.

Shares getting hurt most were in energy and then materials, financials, consumer discretionary, and health care. That’s not surprising, given that China is an important market in many industries and there is growing concern over disruptions.

The State Department issued a travel advisory on Monday, suggesting that people “reconsider travel to China” due to the outbreak and the CDC has issued a warning against “all nonessential travel to China.” Some large companies are paying heed. Facebook, Goldman Sachs, and Europe’s HSBC have all imposed personnel travel bans to mainland China and, for some, to Hong Kong, Reuters reported.

Corporations with a direct presence in China are increasingly putting their activities into quarantine. That has meant canceling reservations, closing facilities, and issuing refunds.

“The biggest hit sectors are luxury goods retailers—for example, Burberry, Gucci, and Cartier—followed by hotel chains, where late bookings and cancellations have been much higher than expected at most large scale global operating brands; and bars, cafes, and restaurants,” wrote Mark Pacitti, managing director of Woozle Research, in a note to Fortune.

Burberry Group shares were down 3.1% compared to last Friday’s close. Stock of Kering, which owns Gucci, dropped 1.2%. Cartier’s owner, Compagnie Financiere Richemont, was off by 1.9%.

A United statement sent to Fortune said the company was canceling 24 flights between the U.S. and Hong Kong and China from Feb. 1 to Feb. 2 because of a “significant decline in demand.” About 11% of its passenger revenue is from Pacific region flights. Shares of the company are down 7% since the end of last week.

Similarly, American Airlines sent a statement that a drop in demand has caused it to suspend flights between Los Angeles and both Shanghai and Beijing from Feb. 9 through Mar. 27. Shares lost 2%.

And there are now reports that the White House may direct all airlines to halt flights between the U.S. and China, according to CNBC.

Starbuck’s latest earnings announcement noted the company had closed more than half its stores in China “and [would] continue to monitor and modify the operating hours of all of our stores in the market” because of the outbreak. The company has 4,292 locations in the country and saw 3% comparable sales growth, second only to the 6% growth notched by its U.S. stores in the quarter ending Dec. 29, 2019. Shares are down as of Tuesday’s close by 6.3%.

McDonald’s also temporarily closed all its locations—several hundred—in the province, according to a statement by CEO Chris Kempczinski in the company’s earnings call this morning. He said that the country represents 9% of global restaurant count but only between 4% and 5% of sales and 3% of operational income. The closings still leave about 3,000 locations open in China. The company is a rare exception to the downward trend. While shares were off on Monday morning, by Tuesday they were up over last week’s close by 1.8%.

Two of The Walt Disney Company’s theme parks—in Hong Kong and Shanghai—are closed “out of consideration for the health and safety of our Guests and Cast Members,” according to statements on the individual parks’ websites. The closures are “temporary” with a reopening date not yet announced. Global revenues of the theme parks in the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 28, 2019 were $26.2 billion, or 37.6% of Disney’s $69.6 billion total revenue. The only division with higher operating income was that of the media networks. Taking all the divisions together, Asia Pacific operations provided almost 7.9% of the company’s total revenue. Shares had a 2.3% loss between the end of last week and Tuesday’s close.

Consumer product brands popular in China may also take a hit, although it isn’t possible to see the results yet. The Lunar New Year, currently happening, is a festive period of travel, celebrations, and giving gifts. Restrictions on travel and activity will reduce consumer spending. Name brands like Nike (shares down 1.9% from last week) and Estee Lauder (off 3.3%) have felt the effects.

Even Apple, with shares up over last week by 2.5% because of a strong earnings report, is wary. CEO Tim Cook mentioned in the earnings call yesterday that it closed one of its retail stores and a number of retailers it works with had closed storefronts. He said that “retail traffic has also been impacted outside of this area across the country in the last few days” and the company is “taking additional precautions and frequently deep cleaning our stores as well as conducting temperature checks for employees.” Apple also has some alternate suppliers in the Wuhan area.

How does coronavirus compare to SARS?

Some may remember the SARS epidemic of 2003 and its impact on the economy and markets. If coronavirus follows that trajectory, it would actually be a good thing, say market-watchers.

SARS—an acronym for severe acute respiratory syndrome—is actually a form of coronavirus, and it turned into quite a headache for businesses. Many companies had to reconsider employee travel and sales calls into Asia. Some studies have estimated that the total GDP loss attributable to SARS was $54 billion in 2003. In the context of a world-wide GDP of $38.9 trillion that year according to the World Bank, the drop was about 0.1%. Significant, certainly, but far from crushing.

The market impact was oddly out of sync with the development of the medical issue. Below is a graph of both the S&P 500 (large-cap stocks) and Russell 2000 (small-cap stocks) during the progression of the epidemic through containment.

The first reported case of what would be known as SARS came at the beginning of a market run-up in November 2002. The World Health Organization (WHO) global alert about SARS only happened when the market had already bottomed out.

The real problem facing markets and the economy was that the world had already been in the middle of a global recession. The following table with data from the United Nations shows how production and trade were slowing.

“We were at the tail end of a very long bear market in November 2002,” said William Zox, chief investment officer for fixed income at Diamond Hill Capital Management. Valuations were low after the recession and volatility was high.

The chance of big swings and of the market eventually starting to return was elevated. The latter began to occur when the WHO issued its alert, which is ironic because the organization had just issued its first global warning.

The current case

There are important differences between 2020 and 2003. For one, China has been more transparent in this epidemic.

“For a long time, the [SARS] virus didn’t exist in Chinese reporting,” said Gerwin Bell, lead economist for Asia at PGIM Fixed Income’s global macroeconomic research team. “It’s very different this time. The Chinese have been up front and brought in the WHO. So, there’s greater transparency.”

That provides more certainty to markets and helps moderate reactions. “You [can] have these geopolitical events that are a big deal when they happen and three days later no one cares about them anymore,” Bell said. “After the panic subsides and is under control, what typically happens is these things get made up, factories work extra shifts, there is a bounce-back.”

Then again, as with SARS, the biggest potential impact of the coronavirus outbreak is that it could act as a trigger for market forces that have built up. If a major shift comes, Zox warns, “it will be more difficult to generate returns with volatility at higher levels,” he said. “Valuations could be under pressure.”

In other words, this virus is nowhere close to being contained yet.

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