BULLS & BEARS: Past pandemics didn’t deflate stock market

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The fear du jour is the Avian Flu and the potential for the mother of all global pandemics.

In November 2004, the World Health Organization said an influenza pandemic was “inevitable,” and in May of this year scientists predicted it could strike as much as 20 percent of the world’s population!

Recently, news media have shown pictures from Asia of crates of dead birds and reported new predictions, ranging from 5 million to 150 million human deaths.

Hundreds of millions of birds have died, and the most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control confirm 112 humans in Asia have been infected, with half those cases resulting in death.

Governments pretty much control the distribution of available vaccine. Given the fabulous government preparedness exhibited during the hurricanes, it’s no wonder people are concerned.

Recently, a client of mine said: “Oil-price shocks and wars are one thing, but this bird flu is scary stuff which … would surely affect the economy as well as stock prices.”

There have been pandemics throughout history, so what happened to the stock market during prior outbreaks?

The first whopper plague, and the one with the best name, Black Death, occurred in the 1300s. It took out one-quarter of Europe’s population, but since capitalism had yet to be dreamed up, nobody knows what the economic impact was.

The second big one, however, was documented.

In 1918 and 1919, the Spanish Flu spread worldwide and killed an estimated 50 million people. A half million died in the United States as well as 200,000 in the United Kingdom.

Adjusted for population growth, that would be the equivalent of 130 million people around the globe, 1.4 million in the United States, and 500,000 in the United Kingdom. All that carnage in just 24 months!

Those numbers make Katrina, Rita and the tsunami look like child’s play and underscore how wicked the Spanish Flu was.

Despite the human toll, the Dow Jones industrial average confounded conventional wisdom and climbed more than 40 percent during 1918 and 1919.

In 1957 and 1958, the Asian Flu caused 70,000 deaths in the United States. During those years, the S&P 500 showed a total return of 17 percent.

In 1968 and 1969, the Hong Kong Flu killed 34,000 Americans. Again the stock market shot up, this time 40 percent.

In 1976, I stood in line with thousands of other Miami University students to get a Swine Flu inoculation. The bug never materialized, but just the whiff of it must have been enough for the stock market. That year, the S&P 500 climbed 23 percent.

Remember the SARS pneumonia scare in 2003, which spurred everyone riding the Hong Kong subways to wear surgical masks? SARS never spread, but the stock market must have thought it would. The S&P 500 in 2003 went up 28 percent.

The cold, callous and heartless stock market apparently is immune to any kind of flu, plague or pneumonia.

If dreaded Avian Flu does come, it could be bad for your health. But if history rhymes, it might not be the worst thing to hit your brokerage statement.

Gilreath is co-owner of Indianapolis-based Sheaff Brock Investment Advisors, money management firm. Views expressed are his own. He can be reached at 705-5700 or daveg@sheaffbrock.com.

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