By Aaron Patrick
Around 2 o’clock on a silent Sydney night early last week, veteran Sydney investment manager Geoff Wilson was woken by the nerve-jarring sensation of cortisol surging through his body.
He rolled over, checked the time, slipped on a pair of earphones, and turned on CNBC. He didn’t want to wake his wife, naturopath Karen Wilson, laying motionless next to him in their beautiful Double Bay home.
Wilson was disturbed by what he heard. He was convinced one of history’s great bull markets was ending.
But the almost-sanguine American commentators on the business channel seemed to be in denial, or could not see, that an epic struggle was about to play out: fear and panic versus fiscal and monetary policy.
Wilson eventually drifted back to sleep. The next morning he received a troubling WhatsApp message from his daughter, Amelia, a designer in a New York tech start-up. The city that never sleeps could be in lockdown by the weekend, she said.
If authorities in the US, Australia and elsewhere started curtailing the physical movement of millions of people, the impact could be devastating.
“This looks worse than ’87,” Wilson thought, referring to the stock market crash that many of his employees at Wilson Asset Management were too young to remember.
Across the financial markets, from shares, to currencies, venture capital and debt, many Australians last week battled through one of the toughest times of their professional lives.
They found themselves, and their understanding of markets, tested. They struggled with exhaustion, stress and the knowledge their high-paid jobs could disappear in a recession.
Even veterans of previous crises were astonished by the markets’ wild gyrations.
The S&P/ASX 200 fell 7.3 per cent Monday, rose 3.1 per cent the following day, then fell 3.6 per cent, 7.4 per cent and rose 4.4 per cent Friday. The dollar closed in on US60¢. Bond prices fell, even though official interest rates may be heading towards zero.
A few kilometres south of Wilson’s Double Bay home, on Thursday, Andrew Brown pulled his second all-nighter of the week. He didn’t have a choice.
Even though Australian shares had pre-empted Wall Street’s Monday 7 per cent dive, the northern hemisphere was driving prices. If the East 72 Investments owner waited until dawn in Coogee to fire up his IG Markets trading account, he could be too late to staunch losses in its $14 million portfolio.
The 160-hour week had tired Brown out, but not defeated him. The trading was exhilarating.
He watched Donald Trump and Christine Lagarde personally tank the markets. He bought JPMorgan at $US92 a few weeks after the investment bank was $US140. He sold his favourite investment, an aircraft-leasing company called AerCap, close to $60. On Friday the stock closed at $US24.50.
Prices were moving so quickly – sometimes exacerbated by an absence of buyers – that he traded in small increments. He cut back on a bet the S&P 500 would fall. Half an hour later the index was down 50 points.
By the end of the week, Brown sensed the sellers had sold everything they could. He was ready to start buying again.
Etienne Alexiou isn’t convinced. A trader by training – he once ran the debt portfolio used to finance ANZ Bank’s daily operations – he was wary about getting caught up in the drama’s minute-by-minute news.
On Wednesday, one of the worst days in the history of Australian shares, Alexiou opened an Excel spreadsheet. He wanted to know when to expect “peak panic”.
Over the following two hours the Belay Capital founder conducted a crude model of when Australian hospitals would be overwhelmed by the coronavirus.
A day earlier, at the Australian Financial Review Business Summit, biosecurity professor Raina MacIntyre had said the infected were doubling every six days.
Alexiou worked out that there were 32,718 spare beds in the medical system. At the same rate of infection cited by MacIntyre, he calculated they would be filled by COVID-19 patients by May 19, when 200,000 to 300,000 people would be infected.
Unable to provide care to all, doctors and nurses would be forced to send people home to die, he reasoned. The images would be profoundly disturbing.
At the same time, the rate of new cases would begin to slow. Even though deaths would mount up, the panic would subside given many Australians would assess their risk of falling ill as decreasing, Alexiou reasoned. That could be when the market turned.
Belay Capital’s founder started last week with 45 per cent of hiss portfolio in cash and 5 per cent in shares, a conservative position. After buying Westpac Banking Corp stock Friday morning, he ended the week with 43 per cent of its holdings in cash.
Like most stocks on the Australian Securities Exchange, Cynata Therapeutics had been hit hard. Unlike most, though, the Melbourne biotech company should have been going up.
The company is developing a stem cell treatment that is already being used to treat patients in China infected with the virus, which the company pointed out in a statement to the stock exchange on Wednesday.
“Critically ill COVID-19 patients in China favourably responded to treatment,” it said.
The shares rallied 7 per cent, then fell 23 per cent on Thursday and Friday.
On Friday morning Cynata chief executive Ross MacDonald rang one of his main investors, the chief investment officer of the KTM Ventures Innovation Fund, Martin Rogers, to discuss the disappointing response.
Rogers told the executive the brutal truth. Wednesday’s positive news hadn’t buoyed support for his company. It had given existing investors an exit.
“It didn’t matter what,” Rogers said on Sunday. “If it was liquid, they were selling it.”
Rogers estimates he got about 50 calls that day from investors and CEOs.
“It had the smell of Lehman Brothers collapse,” he said on Sunday.
The manager of Wilson Asset Management’s global fund, Catriona Burns, was in Europe last week meeting company managers. She texted a photo to the team of Munich. The city looked empty.
By Friday, Wilson had decided the week was a combination of the 2008 crisis, when Lehman went under, and Black Monday. The severity of 1987 is combined with the cascading events that marked the global financial crisis, he said.
None of the firm’s staff will be working from their offices on Monday, and Wilson is girding himself for a challenging time on behalf of the 80,000 Australians who have entrusted him with $3 billion.
“In the first stages of a bear market there is disbelief,” he said on Friday. “When it is starting to fall everyone is justifying what is going on. Everyone is trying to pick the capitulation.
“I heard this back in ’87. Companies were making good money, until a year or two later.
“In the last three or four days you watch CNBC and it is like someone has died. There is no enthusiasm. They have nearly given up and they accept they are in a bear market.
“How deep it will be and go for [is unclear]. We haven’t seen the third or fourth-order effects.”
Wilson and his wife Karen are planning to build a holiday house. Last week their builder sought some investment advice: is it the right time to buy shares?
Wilson thought about the average bear market, which, since 1980, has lasted 46 weeks.
Hold off, he said.