The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has investors concerned about potential new restrictions, but the onus lies most on state and local governments who, for now, are awaiting more information on infection rates and severity.
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Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Michael Zezas, Head of Public Policy Research and Municipal Strategy for Morgan Stanley. Along with my colleagues, bringing you a variety of perspectives, I'll be talking about the intersection between U.S. public policy and financial markets. It's Wednesday, December 1st at 11:00 a.m. in New York.
Not surprisingly, our client conversations this week have been all about Omicron, the new COVID 19 variant that our biotech team thinks may increase infection rates and reduce vaccine effectiveness. In particular, clients want to know if the new variant will lead to fresh government restrictions and crimp the U.S. economic outlook. While the federal government gets much of the attention here, we think the key to sizing up this variable lies in understanding how state and local governments will behave. These are the jurisdictions that have generally driven mask mandates, indoor dining restrictions and other activities. And while there's much to learn about Omicron, here our initial assessment is that the bar is quite high for states and locals to take action, and that should limit downside risk to the economy.
What drives our view? In short, ever since states began lifting restrictions in late spring of 2020, their behavior has mostly been influenced by hospital capacity. Of course, some states lifted restrictions faster than others, but in most cases where restrictions were tightened, rising COVID hospitalizations and lack of bed capacity were cited as the culprits. With the availability of vaccinations in the U.S. and the high vaccination rate among vulnerable populations, risks to hospital capacity have lessened. That's because while COVID can infect the vaccinated, they are far less likely to get sick in a way that lands them in the hospital.
So that means, when it comes to sizing up if Omicron will lead to government restrictions on economic activity, it's less about whether vaccines will prevent infection, but if they can limit hospitalizations. While there's still not a lot of information, and thus outlooks could easily change as data on the new variant is collected, our biotech research team's base case is that Omicron is not more virulent than the currently dominant Delta variant. Further, the U.S. government continues to express the view that vaccines will provide protection against severe disease. Taken together, this would suggest that as long as the U.S. can sustain its vaccine campaign, including the current push for boosters, the economy may only face manageable headwinds. For fixed income investors, that means Treasury yields should still trend higher. And for credit investors, particularly in COVID sensitive municipal bond sectors like airports and hospitals, we see fundamental risks as manageable.
Yet investors should probably focus intently on what would change this view, as this ‘goldilocks outcome’ is mostly in the price of credit and equity markets already. And here again, we say focus on news about Omicron's severity, which is expected within the next few weeks. If data shows it to drive both more infection and more severe sickness, then hospital capacity could be challenged, leading state and local governments to reluctantly reimpose some restrictions. And of course, consumers could react to this signal and change their own behavior - thinking twice about that next flight, for example.
Yet perspective is important here, and even this negative outcome is more likely an economic setback than a disaster, as our biotech team notes that pharmaceutical companies may be able to turn around new boosters to address the challenge within a few months. That in turn means there's likely to be opportunities in credit and equity markets if this riskier case is the one that plays out. We'll, of course, be tracking it all here and checking in with you as we learn more.
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