Immunising portfolios

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Immunising portfolios.

A colleague, recently inoculated with his flu vaccination, joked: "At least if anyone brings Zika back from Rio, I'll be okay".

Like many of us, he was dismissive of the Zika risk because it seemed to be relatively contained (over the other side of the world) and mainly affects pregnant women.

But recently we've been told we should be alert to Zika because it is a "non-trivial and potentially significant global risk".

In recent weeks we have learned Zika can be transmitted sexually and those infected can remain so for six months or more without any symptoms to alert them or their partners to any risk.

I took some comfort from a report from the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention saying the Olympic Games pose little additional risk of causing new outbreaks of the Zika virus.

However the CDC's logic was somewhat less comforting. Their conclusion was not based on the assumption few Olympic athletes would get Zika; rather they assumed some might.

Instead, they started with the 206 countries participating in the Games and excluded the 39 that already had a Zika outbreak, and then another 148 countries which didn't have conditions necessary for outbreaks. That left 19 countries, of which 15 already have a lot of people travelling from areas with Zika outbreaks so the additional Zika risk was "relatively small". Hmmm.

One British financial adviser recently researched the spread of the Zika virus, considering whether his clients should consider hedging (or protecting) their portfolios from the risk. He remembered being an adviser in the early 2000s when his clients questioned him on the impact of bird flu and SARS, two diseases from Asia that grabbed headlines for a few years. He also recalled the Ebola scare of 2014.

His research was positive in terms of his clients' portfolios — history shows the impact of world epidemics on the economy and markets has not been significant.

He referred to a paper prepared by Schwab analyst Jeff Kleintop showing the largest impact of a world epidemic on the MSCI World Index since 1970 as a 5 per cent drop over a six-month period in June 1981 in response to the HIV/Aids breakout.

Kleintop looked at three recent epidemics in particular: In 2003, SARS had a fleeting impact on markets, possibly because the global economy was emerging from recession and investors were focused on the invasion of Iraq. Airlines were affected and Asia was impacted most as the outbreak was more concentrated there.

The World Bank estimated global GDP was impacted by $US33 billion. For perspective, influenza is estimated to cost $US7 billion each year in the US alone.

In 2006 Avian Flu garnered much attention, with a poll at the time suggesting between 30 and 50 percent of respondents were at least somewhat concerned about an outbreak in the United States. However markets saw no measurable impact, with investors focused instead on the Federal Reserve's latest rate hike.

In 2009, despite President Obama declaring a public health emergency in response to the swine flu outbreak in Mexico, markets failed to react at all.

There is always a chance Zika or a completely different outbreak could have greater consequences, both in terms of human suffering and negative economic and market consequences.

But, at least for now, immunising oneself seems more important than immunising our investment portfolios.


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