CryptocurrencyInvestingBanksReal Estate

Flashback: How the stock market started to warn us that COVID-19 was going to be a big deal

February 22, 2021, 9:05 PM UTC

It was this week one year ago that the stock market seemed to get the first hint that COVID could be a thing.

It wasn’t a straight drop down, but this week one year ago marked the start of trouble. “The old market adage ‘Stairs up, elevator down’ certainly rang true over the coming weeks,” wrote Ryan Detrick, chief market strategist for LPL Financial, in a new report. 

By the end of January, market-watchers were still guessing that the coronavirus would have little impact on the stock market despite a smattering of headlines about the virus spreading rampantly throughout China. As late as Feb. 19, markets were “climbing on the news that Beijing [would] likely do whatever it takes—injecting stimulus where needed—to cushion the coronavirus blow.”

Two days later, on Feb. 21, the outlook was suddenly far different. Coronavirus cases were reported in large numbers in Japan, South Korea, and Australia, signaling the end of any hope of containing the virus in China. That day, Goldman Sachs’s Peter Oppenheimer warned investors in a note that a stock market correction was “looking more probable.” 

By the following Monday, cases were surging in Italy, slowly rising in the United States, and the market was finally beginning to take serious notice. As Fortune senior editor Bernhard Warner wrote in his daily Bull Sheet newsletter on Feb. 24: “All indicators are pointing to one of the worst—if not the worst—trading sessions since the coronavirus outbreak first emerged in mid-January, with the Dow and S&P 500 pegged to open down about 2%.”

Soon, the market was in free fall. By the end of the month, “the S&P 500 recorded the fastest bear market (closing 20% below a previous all-time high) in history, accomplishing that feat in a mere 16 days,” Detrick wrote in his report. 

And while then-President Donald Trump was still describing the coronavirus as a low-risk affair for most Americans, markets were already on high alert. On Feb. 28, Warner’s Bull Sheet reported that “the dollar is down, crude is down, and commodities are slumping again. Even gold is selling off. The bulls clearly are in retreat.”

That was just the beginning. Amid the market plunge, economists around the world feared the worst, some even going so far as to predict another Great Depression

“Economists were forecasting a global halt to trade, massive worldwide lockdowns, and were suggesting that it was going to be a multi-month, multi-quarter, and potentially even a multiyear nightmare scenario,” said Peter Essele, head of portfolio management for Commonwealth Financial Network.

A year later, more than 500,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19, a number higher than the population of Atlanta. In addition, domestic violence numbers have risen, overdose numbers stemming from the ongoing opioid crisis are surging, and a record number of Americans were left without health insurance as unemployment soared in 2020.  

But it turns out that the most dire predictions about the economy did not come to pass. After a tumultuous first half of the year, U.S. real GDP increased 33.4% in the third quarter of 2020. Those gains continued into the fourth quarter, when real GDP again rose by 4%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

And by Aug. 18, the S&P 500 set new all-time highs and hasn’t looked back since. 

“The stock market is a peculiar mechanism,” Detrick wrote in the report. 

The stock market has already priced in the normalization of daily life, even if the timeline for a complete return remains uncertain, according to LPL Financial.

“Economic conditions around the world have been improving relative to how they were at the beginning of the pandemic,” Detrick wrote. “While pockets of weakness remain, the market is more concerned with where the economic conditions will be, not where they are currently.”

More must-read finance coverage from Fortune: