When COVID-19 first started spreading across borders back in March, a lot of people decided it was time to rewatch the film Contagion … or to watch it for the first time.
Now that we’ve got early analysis from Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE) showing that its COVID-19 vaccine is more than 90% effective, this 2011 thriller might be worth yet another watch.
And I’m not just suggesting you check this film out for its impressive cast (Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, and Kate Winslet, among others).
The film was well-received by some members of the scientific community for favoring science over drama, though it may be more accurate to say the film actually used science in its drama.
You see, in most pandemic movies, the finding of a cure or vaccine caps off the narrative, removing all the tension and ending the film. Contagion, however, keeps going after a researcher develops a vaccine for the fictional MEV-1, the virus that causes the disease at the center of the film.
The credits don’t roll after Jennifer Ehle’s character, Dr. Hextall, finds a vaccine, because pandemics don’t end once there is a vaccine. The movie tracks the process of mass producing and distributing the vaccine, which then enables the world to rebuild.
Similarly, COVID-19 doesn’t end with Pfizer’s vaccine, though it is huge news for the stock market — the whole world really.
But the market seems to have forgotten — or not known about — a few things that Contagion director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns could tell them about.
First, the results from Pfizer have not yet been peer-reviewed. They were revealed in a press release. The information isn’t conclusive
Second, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still has to go through an approval process — and even an emergency approval process will take time.
Finally, the vaccine’s distribution will likely be split into phases. As CNBC reported in September:
On [September 1], the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a draft proposal for distributing a vaccine in the U.S. if and when one is approved for public use. The report was requested by the National Institutes of Health and the CDC.
The vaccine would be distributed in four phases, with health-care workers, the elderly, and people with underlying health conditions getting vaccinated first, according to the group. Essential workers, teachers, and people in homeless shelters as well as people in prisons would be next on the list, followed by children and young adults.
Those four phases of distribution mean that many Americans won’t be vaccinated until the middle of 2021, at the earliest.
Thanks to the end of the presidential election and the Pfizer vaccine news, there is much less uncertainty in the market today than there was last week. But no investor should confuse this newfound clarity with the end of the story.
Even with a vaccine on the way, we still have a lot to wrestle with over the next few months. The market shouldn’t forget that the COVID-19 pandemic has created economic conditions that will long outlast the virus.
That said, the vaccine news has many investors questioning their recent trades.
For instance, on Saturday, I told you about why I believe gold is the “Trade of the Decade” — and I’m sure many of you are wondering whether yesterday’s vaccine news changes my outlook there.
Here’s what I think …
Gold’s Catalysts Aren’t Going Anywhere
First off, I understand why you now may be questioning my gold call.
After all, the market jumped higher yesterday, with both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 Index setting new intraday highs. And all that confidence pushed down the value of safe-haven assets like gold, which dropped more than 4% yesterday.
Good news means rising stocks means falling gold, right?
Not so fast.
I’ve been saying that I expect the gold price to double over the next two or three years, and I’ve also told you that gold will win out over the dollar. Yesterday’s news changes none of that.
A lot of what I’m talking about has to do with the actions of central banks all over the world since the start of the pandemic.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s governments and central banks are pledging virtually unlimited resources to combat a recessionary fallout. That includes our own dovish U.S. Federal Reserve.
To see what I’m talking about, let’s review a brief history lesson.
In February 2009, during the darkest moments of the financial crisis, the gold price hit a new record high above $1,000 an ounce. But three months later, the stock market had bounced more than 30% from its bear-market lows and the crisis appeared to be ending.
At that point, the “crisis rationale” for owning gold was fading away. But the gold market was just getting warmed up … thanks to monetary factors.
In late 2008, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke introduced “quantitative easing” (QE). In essence, with QE, the Fed would conjure dollars from thin air and then use those dollars to buy Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities in the open market – both to support their prices and to provide liquidity to the credit markets.
Economists still debate the merits of this unconventional tactic, but in the public narrative, “It worked.”
The economy recovered, and the stock market advanced to a record-setting 11-year bull market.
Turning back to the gold market, Bernanke’s QE program was simply a new twist on an old tactic called “money printing.” As such, this program undermined the dollar’s value to some extent and boosted the value – and appeal – of gold.
Even though the gold price was trading near a record high in early 2009, it would double over the next two years.
Remember those 2011 highs I mentioned before? Well, like I said, gold surpassed them this year, and part of that is thanks to aggressive QE from central banks all over the world and trillions of dollar of debt-financed rescue packages and stimulus measures.
Under Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, our own central bank spent $2 trillion in just five weeks in late April and May. This is 2009’s QE on steroids.
The dollar may have bounced on news that fiscal stimulus from the U.S. government is stalled thanks to political gridlock, but neither side of this political fight has walked away from the negotiating table yet. Another round of deficit spending could supercharge the gold rally, pushing it toward $3,000 per ounce – maybe even before 2020 ends.
One of the intended effects of QE is lower interest rates. The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) slashed the overnight interest rate to near zero in March, which means interest rates here in the United States have dropped sharply.
Now, real interest rates — i.e., the interest rate minus the inflation rate — are negative. In other words, every Treasury security, from the three-month T-bill to the 30-year bond, is paying a rate of interest that is less than the inflation rate. That means these securities are paying negative real interest.
This isn’t likely to change anytime soon, and that means that gold isn’t going to lose its appeal anytime soon …
A Vaccine Won’t Change the Fed
As I said on Saturday, Fed Chair Powell has stated that he and his FOMC colleagues intend to hold interest rates close to 0% and to maintain the Fed’s “easy” monetary policy for years to come.
That posture is great for gold, mostly because it is negative for the U.S. dollar.
If we see another trillion-dollar stimulus plan from Congress, we’ll see even more downward pressure on the dollar.
In other words, both politicians and the Federal Reserve will be providing tailwinds to the gold market as we head into 2021.
Those same tailwinds will likely propel stocks higher as well … at least initially. They may even act in concert with the vaccine-related bullishness, giving some investors bigger returns. But as the stock market moves deeper into this next decade, it may encounter the powerful headwind of high valuations.
The U.S. stock market isn’t cheap, at least not based on traditional market metrics.
But this recent rally has made gold significantly cheaper as investors who don’t understand what’s going on move their money into riskier assets like stocks.
Because the underlying conditions that make gold so strong haven’t changed, I think it’s worth buying this dip … and any other dips that come along as we get more vaccine news that gooses stocks and dings gold.
On the date of publication, Eric Fry did not have (either directly or indirectly) any positions in the securities mentioned in this article.
Eric Fry is an award-winning stock picker with numerous “10-bagger” calls — in good markets AND bad. How? By finding potent global megatrends … before they take off. And when it comes to bear markets, you’ll want to have his “blueprint” in hand before stocks go south.