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Global markets sink as U.S.-China tensions over coronavirus worsen

May 4, 2020, 9:43 AM UTC

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Good morning. It’s looking like a down start to the week as sinking U.S.-China tensions unnerve investors. Equities and oil are trading lower.

Let’s take a closer look.

Markets update


  • The major indices were all in the red in afternoon trade, led by Hong Kong’s Hang Seng and Japan’s Nikkei. The Shanghai exchange is closed for a long holiday weekend.
  • Hong Kong reported on Sunday a positive milestone: 14 straight days of no new local coronavirus infections.
  • That was drowned out by President Trump. His latest assertion that China’s “horrible mistake” is to blame for the outbreak is spooking investors. He’s promising a conclusive report linking the deadly outbreak to a Wuhan lab.
  • Saudi stocks tanked to start the week, closing down more than 7% on Sunday after the country’s finance minister warned tough austerity measures were in the works to rebalance the oil giant’s finances.
  • Saudi Aramco fell more than 5% on Sunday. It’s down about 15% from its December IPO.


  • European bourses sunk out of the gates this morning. At the open, Germany’s DAX was down nearly 3% in the first half-hour of trade.
  • The great staged reopening of Europe continues this morning, but that’s doing nothing to lift stocks. This comes after France, Italy, Germany and Spain reported significantly improved coronavirus infection and death tolls over the weekend.
  • Air France-KLM this morning won approval for a €7 billion aid package while Deutsche Lufthansa is closer to cinching €10 billion in aid.
  • Some good news now… Swiss pharma giant Roche announced on Sunday it had won U.S. FDA approval for a coronavirus antibody test. Its shares were up a tick in early trade.


  • The Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq futures point to a weak open, extending Friday’s losses. The S&P closed Friday down 3.7%.
  • On Saturday, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway hosted its annual shareholder event to a near-empty auditorium in Omaha. Q1 was particularly brutal. The company reported a loss of $49.7 billion. Yes, billion with a B.
  • What’s on tap this week? Expect more wrangling over small business aid as Congress gets back to business today. On Friday, the April jobs report comes out. Spoiler alert: it will be ugly.
  • Earnings season isn’t over. Disney, General Motors and Tyson Foods all report.


  • Gold is up, as is the dollar.
  • Like stocks, crude is falling on the U.S.-China tensions. WTI futures had been nearing $20/barrel, but are sinking. Brent is down over 2%.

Stay away?

Some of the more superstitious investors out there get an uneasy feeling whenever the calendar flips to May. There’s an old expression that goes something like: “sell in May, and go away.” The basic gist is that if there’s a low season to equities-trading it would be from May through October, the so-called slow summer months. The November to April “winter” stretch, meanwhile, is when volumes (and gains) pick up.

There’s some data to back up this observation. If you go back 70 years you can see a pattern in which stocks perform better in the winter period. If you think this hypothesis comes across as a dump of data with no clear cause-effect rationale, you’re not alone.

But still, veteran traders like to trot it out this time of year. And on cue, the good people at LPL Research sent me a note saying why the old adage should be retired. Here’s their analysis, in a handy chart they put together.

As you can see, since 2012, equities have performed well in the May-October timeframe. Just once, in 2015, did the index fall into the red. And just barely.

Does that mean we should scrap the saying once and for all? Not so fast. Equities sank significantly on Friday, and are pointing down again today. And even LPL is wondering if we can extend the strong May-October run in 2020, saying, after the April bull run “a well-deserved break could be perfectly warranted.”

But, there’s the “other hand” argument too. “With the dual benefits of record monetary and fiscal stimulus helping to bridge those most impacted by COVID-19, we continue to expect this recession to be one of the shortest on record and a much stronger economy later in 2020,” LPL Financial Senior Market Strategist Ryan Detrick says.

So what will it be: dive in and make some trades, or stay away until the autumn?



It’s May 4, a day we in Italy have long ago circled on our calendars. Beginning today, Europe’s longest running lockdown will ease slightly so that a selection of businesses can reopen. It’s expected that one-quarter of the country’s workforce will return to their offices, factories and shops today; further gradual phase-ins are planned for two weeks hence, and again in early June.

Last night, health officials reported a steep decline in new COVID-19 cases and deaths, which adds a bit of reassurance to the notion that now is as good a time as any to reopen.

But what most everyone here is talking about is the restrictions that remain on visiting friends and family. Under the rules, we cannot visit my in-laws as that would require crossing the regional border of Lazio into Umbria. And we cannot visit friends, regardless of where they live. But—and this is a big win for Italian lovers—you are permitted to visit your fiancé (as long as you carry the proper completed forms, downloadable from the Ministry of Love’s website.)

But even this concession is generating all kinds of fuss among Italians. Why fiancé and not, say, my football mates? And what about about a new lover? Does she count? Why should the financé get special visiting rights?

Legally, the fiancé is not family. Yet. But surely the fiancé has a higher standing than your soccer pals, the government seems to be saying. There’s a lot riding on this. If you get busted for an unauthorized visit, the fines can be steep.

Into this debate stepped prime minister Giuseppe Conte, a former law professor. He declared last week what to him sounded like a perfectly reasonable explanation. The fiancé, like family, are to be defined as “congiunti.” And starting today you can stop by your favorite congiunti and say hello (a mask is highly recommended). Wait, the congiunti? Who the heck are they? The government had to clarify that congiunti are blood relations and “stable, non-familial relations.”

Wait, WHAT? That sounds so specifically vague it could include everyone from my trusty mechanic to the friends I usually go cycling with. They’re as stable as anyone I know.

The term congiunto (singular) has long puzzled me. You see it on forms all the time. It literally translates to conjoined or conjoint, suggesting these are relations that are so close we share a femur. There really is not an equivalent legal term English that I’m aware of.

Maybe the Ministry of Stable Relations will post a helpful FAQ on the website—or more likely respond with an even fuzzier explanation.

Bernhard Warner

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Today's reads

Jumbo debt. When Boeing announced on Friday it had raised $25 billion in a mammoth bond sale it added a lot of zeroes to its debt load. The platemaker now has more debt than this nation. Hint: okay, it's New Zealand, the Washington Post reports, citing Bank of America. If I were more clever here's where I'd insert an All Blacks reference.

Too high imo. If you're not following Elon Musk on Twitter you may have missed what may go down as one of the most expensive tweets of all time. In a moment of brutal honesty, the Tesla CEO on Friday blurted out that he thinks the share price of TSLA is too high. Investors promptly dumped the stock in morning trade; it closed Friday down 10%. One incredulous Twitter user seemed to be reading the minds of everyone when he asked Musk, "are you high?"

Think stocks beat bonds every time? Think again. In his weekly column, The New York Times' Jeff Sommer ran the numbers and found that over the past 20 years, several different classes of bonds have outperformed the S&P 500—in some cases by a lot. His analysis didn't surprise me. The data did, however.

Market candy

I just decided that I’d made a mistake.

That was Warren Buffett admitting his airline investment strategy had backfired. Again. Berkshire Hathaway on Saturday reported $54.5 billion in Q1 investment losses (the conglomerate's overall losses were better, at $49.7 billion). As a result, Buffett & co. dumped its holdings in Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, American Airlines Group and United Airlines Holdings. "The airline business — and I may be wrong, and I hope I’m wrong — but I think it, it changed in a very major way," he later noted.