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March 9, 2020, 8:49 a.m. EDT

Coronavirus threat is changing human behavior, so economic forecasters are flying blind

No way to predict what people will do if they think going out might kill them, says Forecaster of the Month

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By Rex Nutting, MarketWatch

AFP via Getty Images
It’s impossible to predict what people will do in an epidemic. You might be able to predict that consumers would strip stores of essential goods they might need, but who could predict that the store would lower the price?

Award-winning forecaster David Kelly is the first to admit he doesn’t know what the economic impact of the novel coronavirus will be. He says there’s a 50-50 chance of a recession this year, but that’s not a forecast so much as it is a way of throwing his hands up in the air to say: Who knows?

The usual methods of forecasting the economy “aren’t very good at forecasting the storm we see coming,” Kelly says. Looking at the usual flow of data on employment, retail sales, manufacturing output, home building and others won’t tell us what will happen next week or next month if the COVID-19 outbreak worsens.

Breaking news: The latest on the COVID-19 outbreak.

Kelly is the chief global strategist for J.P. Morgan Asset Management, who along with his colleague Meera Pandit, won MarketWatch’s contest as Forecaster of the Month for February.

Meera Pandit (left) is a market analyst at J.P. Morgan Asset Management. David Kelly is the chief global strategist.

Economics is a social science. It’s a study of how humans and their organizations respond to various risks and rewards. And right now, the outbreak “really is changing human behavior,” Kelly says. At least in the short run.

Every day humans make hundreds of decisions that balance their resources with their short-term wants and needs and their long-term survival. Every day, we weigh (subconsciously, no doubt) the risks and rewards of going out into a dangerous world to work, shop, play and socialize. Every day, we repeat after Dirty Harry: “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

The coronavirus outbreak is forcing people to re-evaluate their ingrained habits. They’ll ask themselves: “Do I want to go out if I think there’s a 1 in a 100 chance it kills me?” Kelly says. Their fears and responses may not be rational, which makes them so hard to predict.

Also read: Should I cancel my flight? Will recirculated air on a plane spread coronavirus? Here’s what you need to know before traveling

Kelly is busy refining contingency plans for his global team. He has colleagues who live and work in Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Milan, among other major cities. This is not an academic exercise.

As the chief global strategist for the asset management arm of J.P. Morgan, Kelly’s job is to help institutional and individual investors build their wealth. He has no doubt that, eventually, you want to be in equities /zigman2/quotes/210599024/realtime GDOW +0.08%  .

“You have to be extraordinarily pessimistic to invest at 1%” yields /zigman2/quotes/211347051/realtime BX:TMUBMUSD10Y +1.00%  , he says. “We do know this will not last forever. Everyone will try to get back to normal.”

When valuations look cheap, Kelly says he’ll be looking into companies on micro level, particularly their balance sheets.

This crisis will expose a lot of vulnerable companies. Even in boom times, many companies are barely hanging on. Every company will look at cutting costs so they can survive. Many won’t.

Pandit is more focused on the short-run flow of data. She notes that the economic data look to be good shape ahead of this shock, with high consumer sentiment, fairly robust spending and unseasonably warm weather boosting some of the numbers. Her question is, “how will they morph in light of COVID and the Fed’s cuts?”

Kelly & Pandit’s forecast The number as reported*
ISM 47.8% 50.9%
Nonfarm payrolls 165,000 225,000
Trade deficit -$48.5 billion -$48.9 billion
Retail sales 0.5% 0.3%
Industrial production -0.2% -0.3%
Consumer price index 0.1% 0.1%
Housing starts 1.419 million 1.567 million
Durable goods orders -0.5% -0.2%
Consumer confidence index 131.7 130.7
New home sales 761,000 764,000
* Subject to revisions

Kelly and Pandit won the February forecasting contest over 44 competing teams. On two of the 10 indicators we track — the consumer price index and new home sales — their forecasts were the most accurate. On four other indicators — the consumer confidence index, durable goods orders, the trade deficit and industrial production — their forecasts were among the 10 most accurate.

The runners up in the February contest were Christophe Barraud of Market Securities, Richard Moody of Regions Financial, Andrew Hollenhorst of Citigroup and Ryan Sweet of Moody’s Analytics.

The MarketWatch median consensus published in our Economic Calendar includes the predictions of the 15 forecasters who have earned the most points in our contest over the past 12 months, plus the forecast of the most recent winner of the monthly contest.

The forecasters in our survey are: Christophe Barraud of Market Securities, Jim O’Sullivan of TD Securities, Ryan Sweet of Moody’s Analytics, Andrew Hollenhorst of Citigroup, Seth Carpenter’s team at UBS, Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macro, Richard Moody of Regions Financial, Chris Low of FHN Financial, Michelle Meyer’s team at Bank of America, Lewis Alexander’s team at Nomura Securities, Jan Hatzius’s team at Goldman Sachs, Lou Crandall of Wrightson ICAP, Greg Daco’s team at Oxford Economics, James Sweeney’s team at Credit Suisse, Peter Morici of the University of Maryland, and David Kelly’s team at J.P. Morgan Asset Management.

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Rex Nutting is a columnist and MarketWatch's international commentary editor, based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @RexNutting.

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