The largest economic threat posed by ebola could be summed up in something Franklin D. Roosevelt said over 80 years ago, in his first inauguration speech in the depths of the Great Depression: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Why? The very word “ebola” is striking panic in hearts from West Africa to the U.S., although the spread of the disease itself has been extremely limited outside the current hotspots in West Africa: Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Even though what started out nearly 40 years ago as an obscure disease with a high mortality rate that afflicted people in small villages in South Sudan and what was then Zaire has risen to global significance, the effects of the disease itself have so far been almost completely restricted to Africa.
It could, of course, be worse, and may get there if ebola continues to spread. But thus far the economic damage it has already caused to markets is largely due to fear, taking a toll on everything from mining and agriculture to tourism and international commerce.
The three countries currently experiencing ebola outbreaks together represent just 1% of Africa’s total economy. Yet, according to World Bank figures in an October report, the ebola epidemic not only threatens those three countries’ economies, it poses a larger threat to the well-being of the entire region of West Africa.
GDP growth in Liberia and Guinea, said the World Bank, could be cut in half by the outbreak, while losses to West Africa could total $32 billion. Should ebola spread beyond its current borders to hit Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Senegal, that total could mount to $40 billion. And while it is necessary to do everything possible to contain the epidemic, some of the economic damage could also be averted by a focus on “mitigating aversion behavior”— forestalling or reversing the effect of investment outflows and tourism flight from the region because of fears over the disease.
That last may be easier said than done, as the drumbeat of headlines and a flurry of reports not just from the World Bank but from analysts at various outlets highlight the dangers of a lack of containment.
And while markets were at first slow to react, perhaps the first “ebola effect” to be reported was an increase in the price of cocoa as commodities traders sought to insulate themselves from the effects of the epidemic. Since 70% of cocoa comes from West Africa, research analyst Anna Mulholland at Deutsche Bank said in an October report that spread of the disease beyond its current borders “would hold significant implications for cocoa production.”
But cocoa is by far not the only commodity that could feel the effects of a broader outbreak. According to Mulholland, West Africa “is a major producer of commodities across the energy, metals and agricultural sectors.” As a result, investors should keep a watchful eye on market action in a broad range of categories.
Mulholland said in the report that not just cocoa but gold was most “at risk” from a potential spread of the disease outside its current boundaries. In the report, she said, “We assess the risks to mines and commodities from a worsening of the crisis in countries where the disease has already occurred—Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone—plus the risk of a spread of the disease across borders into Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal, and further afield into Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. We also set out the extent of mined output of major commodities in the DRC and Zambia.”
According to the analyst, “Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are particularly focused on iron ore, bauxite, gold, diamonds, cocoa, coffee and rubber.” Copper, cobalt (used in rechargeable batteries) and aluminum are also at risk in the mining sector.
At present, because the outbreak is confined to those three countries, both the mining and agricultural sectors present more of a risk for “domestic growth, balance of payments, and inflation” within the three countries affected, since their contribution to the cocoa, coffee, cotton, palm oil and rubber markets constitutes only 2% of global exports. Should the epidemic widen, however, that would change, since if Ghana, Nigeria and the Cote d’Ivoire become involved a much greater proportion of global exports are at risk.
In a separate Deutsche Bank report, analyst Andrew Zarnett said that spread of the disease and the resulting “fear from an outbreak” would lead to substantial effects on the airline and hospitality sectors. Pointing to the macroeconomic impact of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003, Zarnett noted, “The WHO estimated that total loss from the epidemic at East Asian countries was of $20 billion. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy had a $7 billion loss related to SARS, in spite of reporting no deaths in the country. We note that the losses derived from SARS for North American airlines were of ~$1 billion (3.7% drop in international traffic).”
Another area in which ebola is taking a toll is the food market. Mulholland said, “Ebola is having a significant effect on the movement of people, food and increasingly seaborne trade. In many cities panic buying of food is aggravating food shortages and given the risks of disruptions to grain harvests that are just beginning, a further acceleration in food inflation is probable.”
Obviously, international investment in healthcare measures to contain the crisis are on the rise, as various countries kick in to pay for the necessary supplies and personnel to respond to the disease at its source. Pharmaceutical stocks of companies involved in ebola research have already seen their prices rise or fall, depending on where they are in the process.
According to John Blank, chief equity strategist at Zacks, the ebola crisis with its high fatality rate is “all a factor of how well constructed the health system is—” one of the weaknesses that has previously hindered investment in numerous African nations. Blank, who has traveled extensively in Africa, said, “The context [of the state of the health system in many African countries] has to be understood, and cannot be understood unless you live it: the utterly and totally derelict conditions of health services there.”
The ebola crisis “ends up being an effect of the derelict state of the health system,” said Blank. “And that may ultimately be the good thing about ebola: it will rekindle investment in global health.”
Before taking any steps with a portfolio that are more a response to worry than to practical concerns, it might be worth considering Roosevelt’s next words in that inauguration speech. While many remember those first words cited above, few remember what followed: “…nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Perhaps investors, as well as public bodies responding to the crisis, should keep that in mind when making decisions about the effects of ebola on the markets.