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Finding a middle ground to tackle the coronavirus crisis

March 30, 2020, 10:22 AM UTC

Good morning.

President Trump’s talk of reopening the economy on Easter, which he has now backed off of, has helped launched an important debate. At the moment, we seem stuck between two unrealistic alternatives: 1) a quick return to work, or 2) a widespread lockdown until a vaccine is ready (a year or more in the future). Both alternatives could lead to social and economic breakdown. But no one has articulated a clear vision for what the reasonable middle ground would look like.

What might it look like? The elements of a possible strategy are beginning to emerge. It will probably involve a nationwide lockdown that lasts at least through the end of May. Then, the return to work needs to roll out gradually, and include the following elements: continued protection/isolation for vulnerable populations; continued restrictions on large gatherings; increased production of protective equipment and ventilators; some proven therapies for treating the most vulnerable; priority given to those who can’t work from home over those who can; staggered start times to minimize rush hour crowding; widespread and rapid testing so new infections can be spotted quickly; sharp restrictions on travel so new infections can be isolated and contained; and antibody testing so immune individuals can be identified. The world should be watching China, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea as they probe the parameters of such an effort—even though more democratic societies will struggle to mimic many of their less democratic tactics.

Government needs to lead this effort; but business plays a critical role.   Fortune will be holding a virtual gathering of members of its CEO Initiative tomorrow, to begin a conversation on this topic. I’ll have more to report on Wednesday.

In the meantime, former Honeywell CEO Dave Cote—who successfully navigated the Great Recession and added $60 billion to his company’s market value before stepping down in 2017—has some advice for CEOs in the midst of this crisis.  You can read the full interview here, but some excerpts:

Focus on leadership, not consensus. “What matters is getting feedback from all your people, then making a decision.”

Hope for the best, plan for the worst. “Pick a plan and start executing as if you expect the worst to happen.”

Keep workers around for the recovery. In the recession “we did very few layoffs… Instead, we relied on furloughs.”

—In a crisis, don’t take a bonus. “When workers asked me if I intended to take a bonus for 2009, I’d say that was up to the board… That was a big mistake.”

More news below.

Alan Murray


Markets fall—again

Markets were opening lower once again on Monday morning, and crude futures in the U.S. fell below $20/barrel once again on Sunday morning—an 18-year low—before slightly recovering. In oil markets, a vast surplus from the drop in demand paired with more supply from Saudi Arabia also means the sector is facing a logistical challenge: within weeks, it could run out of storage. FT 

Small Business Loan Package 

A small business loan program, as part of the overall $2 trillion government relief package, is expected to come this week, while workers can expect direct deposits or checks in three weeks, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Sunday. “Any FDIC bank, any credit union, any fintech lender will be authorized to make these loans” to a small business subject to certain approvals, Mnuchin said. That comes after 3.28 million people filed for unemployment insurance in the week ended March 21. Bloomberg 

Cash Dash 

Global corporate bond issuance by some of the world's largest "investment grade" companies has surged to $244 billion so far in March—the largest move since a record sale of $252 billion last September. Those include companies from Berkshire Hathaway to Disney and Pfizer, and those issuances were picking up pace last week after massive government stimulus was unveiled. FT

Hit Bottom 

Analysts at JPMorgan predict the market has already hit bottom—noting that recession-style pricing, massive fiscal stimulus, and investors shifting their positioning has already occurred. But they note that coronavirus infection rates are still a "wild card"—and others think there's still further to go. Fortune


Labor Shift 

The fall-out from the spread of coronavirus is the largest labor shift since the Second World War, staffing companies say, as furloughed workers across hospitality, aviation, and tourism are being recruited to online delivery, grocery chains, and even agriculture. “Tens of thousands of jobs open up overnight,” said Becky Frankiewicz, president of ManpowerGroup North America. “We have to move within hours.” WSJ

Instacart Strike 

Instacart—the online grocery delivery service—is in demand, with orders soaring amid widespread lockdowns, and the company has pledged to hire another 300,000 delivery people. But workers from the company will strike on Monday, saying the company has ignored their demands for protective equipment, hazard pay, and access to sick-pay for at-risk workers and those who have coronavirus symptoms. Fortune

The race to design a better face mask

Face masks are easily contaminated—potentially spreading the disease. So now, researchers and designers are racing to design a better option: a mask that can kill viruses and bacteria, rather than just trap them. The current designs in the works use salt crystals, or nano-diamonds. Fortune 

The Iceland Approach 

In Iceland, any citizen can request a coronavirus test, simply by filling out an online form. That's part of an effort by the country's public health authority to test as broadly as possible to draw a real sample of how wide the virus has spread—rather than only testing those with symptoms, as is the case in the U.S. and U.K. Without widespread testing, “they do not have the faintest idea of how and why it is spreading in the society,” says the CEO of the Icelandic biopharma company DeCODE. Fortune 

This edition of CEO Daily was edited by Katherine Dunn