On the morning of September 11, 2001, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson was scheduled to deliver a speech in which he was going to argue that the greatest threat facing this country was . . . a global pandemic. Five years later, that still may be true, but most can’t conceive of a global avian flu outbreak. Psychologists call this “cognitive bias,” the inability to take seriously something that’s far beyond our personal experiences. That remains the case with a global pandemic, despite comments like those made in the May issue of Investment Advisor by economist Milton Ezrati that “Right now . . . there are too many ifs to do anything from an investment strategy point of view.”

Corporations, especially in the U.S., are largely ignoring the prospect of a pandemic. A global survey in March reported that 80% of U.S. companies expect to be hurt by a pandemic, but only 7% have done anything about it. Meanwhile, public health experts say the odds of a pandemic are as high as 50-50 in the next year. How are you going to sensitize your clients to this issue?

First, get conversant with the facts and implications:

- No one knows when it will happen, but infectious disease scientists worldwide say it’s not a question of “if” but “when.”

- A mild pandemic would be reasonably manageable in terms of public health, commerce, and personal finance.

- An extreme outbreak–comparable to the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918–is almost incomprehensible.

If it were bad, customer demand for many goods and services would plummet. Retail, entertainment, sports, travel, hospitality, and many professionals service firms will tank for six months or more. Others will struggle to meet crushing demand at a time when, like all other organizations, 25% to 30% of their employees will be out sick and another 10% to 30% will be absent because they are caring for a sick family member, have self-quarantined themselves, or they are too frightened or depressed.

Under a severe flu scenario, the global just-in-time economy will buckle as supply chains falter for lack of truck drivers and train and ship crews. Even the Internet–which many firms are counting on to isolate people at home to minimize exposure while remaining productive–could be crippled by millions of new telecommuters. Elements of the infrastructure will become spotty, from postal service and banking transactions to gasoline availability and utilities.

Most advisors will want their clients to sit this out. But you might have only a day, more likely hours, to attend to your clients’ interests.

This suggests some basic contingencies. Urge your clients to establish stop-loss orders for holdings if they don’t already have them. Call the investor relations departments of investments you have recommended and ask to see their pandemic/crisis management plans.

There will be winners and losers in every industry segment, and those who prepare well will come out ahead. They will recover faster and their brands will be burnished. Even if there is no pandemic, the winners will be closer to their customers, better understand their suppliers’ strengths and weaknesses, and have an update of high-potential people in key jobs throughout their businesses.

They will be more competitive and successful.

And you will have known that long before others.

Dave Kieffer

Mercer Human Capital Advisory Services

Washington, D.C.