Companies have endured financial meltdowns, civil wars and natural disasters. But nothing in modern memory has dented both demand and supply so quickly for so many industries as the coronavirus.
The virus, which has infected more than 85,000 people, has quickly spread through Asia and Europe, disrupted global travel and hobbled supply chains that churn out everything from smartphones to pharmaceuticals. In days, it went from pockets of woe to the top concern of chief executives world-wide.
Conferences are getting canceled, from the Geneva International Motor Show to Facebook Inc.’s F8 developer gathering in California. Disneyland Tokyo is closed. Auto suppliers are warning of parts shortages. Generic drug manufacturers are paying 50% more for some raw materials.
The widespread nature of the epidemic and related uncertainty will put a hold on large corporate investments, mergers and hiring, said Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom, who has researched the impact of uncertainty on business cycles.
“A lot of the damage is already being inflicted purely from major decisions being delayed,” Mr. Bloom said. “I can’t see many firms green-lighting any projects until they can figure out what is going on.”
Larry Kudlow, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, said Friday the threat from the virus for Americans is low and the “coronavirus is not going to sink the U.S. economy.” Some in the White House have blamed the media’s coverage of the outbreak for exaggerating the situation and causing hysteria.
The virus surfaced as U.S. companies were riding atop America’s longest economic expansion on record, matched by soaring stock-market returns. But profit growth for S&P 500 companies started to cool last year, squeezed by rising labor costs and trade disruptions.
Official Chinese government gauges of activity in the manufacturing and services sectors plunged to record lows in February, the country said Saturday, dropping deep into territory that indicates a contraction.
In the U.S., business activity in February fell to its lowest level in more than six years on fears of the epidemic.
In February, 129 companies in the S&P 500 discussed “coronavirus” in their quarterly earnings calls, up from 60 in January, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of transcripts. There were nearly 600 mentions of the virus in companies’ security filings in the past week alone, according to Kaleidoscope, a research firm.
Executives have talked about how the virus will slow consumer spending on products from Crocs sandals to Gucci handbags. It has slowed production at nickel mines in Indonesia and halted the filming of “Mission Impossible 7” in Venice.
At the same time, many companies have cautioned it is too soon to tell how serious an economic problem the virus will be.