'How are you?' replaces 'How is the market?'

'How are you?' replaces 'How is the market?'

People Corporate & Sovereign Strategy Capital Markets Regions Coronavirus

Fair to say nobody knows how the global markets will behave day-to-day in the era of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, and yet as the distances grow between financial highs and lows as well as the physical distance between people, polite inquiries to ones health and well-being take on new significance in phone and video chats between coworkers, clients and sources, let alone family.

"Everyone wishes each other well and the first concern is health and safety in a sincere way. Everybody understands the situation and everybody is trying to cope. You are just hoping it passes quickly and the long-term damage is limited," says home-bound Steven Englander, head of G10 FX at Standard Chartered Bank in New York. 

"For myself, I can get a lot done from home but having that real time contact with sales and trading, you miss that. Even with the best of chat communications, the ability to look over your screen and ask someone why something is happening is better. There's a reason why markets tend to be concentrated," he said. 

In New York City,  residents are being prepared for a potential "shelter in place" order as confirmed cases in the nation's biggest city pushed toward 1,000.

In Latin America, where the number of confirmed cases is lagging behind other regions of the world, the impact is still palpable.

In Buenos Aires, for instance, the government is also asking people to stay home, leaving the cafe society desolate, and the normally teeming sidewalks easy to navigate. Buses are turning away riders if there are no seats. Some pharmacies have run out of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, face masks and thermometers. “Come back on Friday,” a pharmacist said. 

While these same scenarios are playing out in much of the world, there is a sense that the global pandemic could hit Argentina harder. A financial crisis — the country is on the verge of defaulting on more than $100 billion in debt — has clipped its capacity to respond to a surge in cases of the disease and to help businesses and people get through it all.

“This is a time of a lot of uncertainty for how fast everything is happening,” Luciano Cohan, managing partner at Seido, an economic consultancy in Buenos Aires, said of the spread of coronavirus.

“It seems worse for Argentina, where everything seems to move faster,” he added. “Our capacity to react is a lot less than other countries.”

Cohan said he is used to working from home, but says balancing his work and his three young kids, between the ages of three and seven, is a challenge. The kids are getting restless after two days at home. 

But he shrugs off the challenge, calling it minor as compared with his clients, who are fretting about how to manage the impact of the crisis on their companies’ profits, productivity and employee well-being. 

“The uncertainty is total for them,” he said. “Everybody is putting into place contingency plans and redoing their forecasts for the year.”

Those in the asset management industry, especially in Venezuela where the daily struggle with hyperinflation, limited food and medical supplies existed long before COVID-19, are finding that working from home doesn't necessarily ease up on the stress levels.

"Thanks to technology, its possible to work remote, but it is not the same. It is very stressful to work remote because one gets the feeling things aren't getting done. We lose a synergy that comes from the dynamic of being all together," says Jesus Delascio, director of Midas Investment Group in Barquisimeto, a medium-sized industrial city that sits at the crossroads of Venezuela's Andean, Central Plains and Caribbean regions.

"We're still working, so we're better off than other industries that have closed operations," said Delascio, who also expressed surprise at the limited amount of nervous calls from clients so far.

And then there are others where home work isn't a drag.

One Latin American asset manager based out of Greenwich, Connecticut, who requested anonymity said the time away from the office is helping him improve his productivity by turning off the the noise and bustle of an office.

"Now I have more time to do exercise and be with my family, and at the same time, more net time working," the manager said, adding that it is easier to follow the market, not second by second but more intermittent. "This also changes your emotional frame... I also eat healthier. No quick sandwiches in the street."

Esteban Fernández Medrano, an economist at MacroVision Consulting and GlobalSource Partners in Buenos Aires, said he is working from his weekend house an hour or so outside the city, what is normally a relaxing environment. Instead, there is an underlying sense that something is amiss, and his children are on edge.

In a phone interview, he spent as much time talking about his specialty, the economy, as coronavirus and how it may spread, what containment strategy is best, the potential death rate, and what must be done to keep people calm and feeling safe.

“We have to avoid panic,” Fernández Medrano.

While he said that these are issues for health experts, he said that it is hard not to think about what could happen and what must be done to limit deaths and keep the health system from running out of beds and respiratory systems. And, also, how all of this is affecting his family, friends and those he speaks with.

“And how are you?” he asked. “How are you dealing with everything, how are your kids, how’s your wife?”