The single best predictor of success is not family background, intelligence, education, height, or appearance. It’s your health. If you cannot get to work, have difficulty focusing, or are worried about surviving, career success is even harder.
Yet we treat health as a benefit that one must earn. We have made health a marginal cost to be squeezed by turning people into temporary workers undeserving of care. We tell ourselves that we have the best healthcare system in the world while U.S. life expectancy drops and death-by-despair skyrockets.
This is bad for business.
Health is infrastructure. It is a common good that makes life itself and commerce possible. If you want proof, look at what the lack of health infrastructure has recently cost the nation.
Theaters, restaurants, and stores are closed. The travel industry is gutted. Goldman Sachs is predicting an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent, and the stock market — touted as the gauge of our success — has lost $8 trillion in the last month. As of Monday, March 23, the Dow Jones Average was lower than when President Trump took office. Two popular stocks — Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft (MSFT) — were each valued at about $1.4 trillion a month ago; they have lost a combined $800 billion in value since then.
In 2017 the Trump Administration prohibited the CDC from using the term “evidence-based” in favor of “community standards and wishes.” Prohibiting “evidence-based” supports the notion that “perception is reality,” which works remarkably well in politics, but not in science and logistics. Given the lack of testing kits, the data are hard to compare, but infections are growing dramatically. The good news is that, as testing increases, the mortality rate — the number of deaths per positive test — is falling. In the last two weeks, the U.S. mortality rate has fallen from 2.6 percent to 1.1 percent.
Uncertainty has caused panic.
Our defense budget is $738 billion. For 2020 the president had proposed to spend $509 million (with an “m”) protecting the population from “Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases,” that is, viruses like the coronavirus.
In a bid to stimulate the economy, the Federal Reserve has lowered interest rates to near zero and committed to buying $700 billion of U.S. Treasuries. Congress passed the $8.5 billion “Emergency Coronavirus Bill,” and the Treasury has proposed a trillion-dollar plan to save the airlines, other distressed businesses, small businesses, and cash-strapped families. As of Monday night, the Covid Tracking Project reports 471 deaths in the U.S. and about 42,000 confirmed coronavirus cases.
Shutting down the country for eight weeks to slow the spread of the virus may be the best defense, but the effect of shutting down the economy is almost incomprehensible. About 158 million people have jobs and another 172 million shop, go to school, drive, volunteer, and spend their retirement money. Many, if not most, people are huddling at home and dropping much of what drives the economy. It is hard to conceive how this ends, though Omar Hussan, writing in The Independent, notes, “Coronavirus will bankrupt more people than it kills.”
Last Monday morning the market opened and dropped so quickly that, in seconds, “circuit breakers” stopped trading for 15 minutes. Circuit breakers halt trading on the nation’s stock markets during dramatic drops, and are set at 7 percent, 13 percent, and 20 percent of the closing price for the previous day.
Health is the first level of infrastructure, and we are paying dearly for a lack of it.
Fortunately, new tools to develop health infrastructure are available: gene sequencing, pattern recognition, and vast databases that, working together, will dramatically improve health. I was happily surprised when a Princeton virologist told me that the FDA has already approved three viruses to deliver genes to repair inherited diseases. On the other hand, I am angry that patients with broken spinal cords are instructed not to get their hopes up because they will probably never walk again, though it is widely accepted that we will soon walk on Mars.
We need a leader like John F. Kennedy who will challenge us to a new “moonshot” — not to Mars, but to a healthcare breakthrough that will inspire us, improve health for everyone, and drive economic innovation. Now is the time to make that investment.
New Jersey likes to call itself “The Medicine Chest of the World,” but it seems that California is stealing the march for next-gen healthcare. 23andme, the private gene sequencing company, is in Sunnyvale, CA, the birthplace of Apple. Illumina (ILMN), which provides sequencing and array-based solutions for genetic and genomic analysis, is in San Diego.
Consider shares in ILMN, which has $3.4 billion in cash and $1.1 billion in long-term debt, and which earned $1 billion in 2019. Frances Arnold, Princeton ’79 and 2018 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, sits on Illumina’s board. Last week, I placed a low-ball order for ILMN at $205; it sold for $335 in December. In last week’s volatile market, prices shot up and down; my $205 order cleared on Wednesday; ILMN closed on Monday at $237.
Nordic Semiconductor, (NDCVF) is a twofer: a bet on a profitable company that makes chips for the Internet of Things (IOT) and a bet on the out-of-favor Norwegian currency, which is down 23 percent against the dollar. NDCVF is growing sales and profits, has plenty of cash and no debt, and can grow rapidly in the market for a major new technology. Norway’s debts are only 30 percent of GDP versus U.S. debt of over 100 percent of GDP. The U.S. has a trillion-dollar annual deficit; Norway has a $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund (about $195,000 per citizen) and a larger GDP per person than the U.S. NDCVF closed on Monday at $3.30, down from $7.13 in March.
I bought Inovio (INO), the vaccine maker, at $4.39 on February 14 as a hedge against the coronavirus. It opened on March 9 at $18.50. That afternoon, Andrew Left, a short seller in Beverly Hills, tweeted, “SEC should immediately HALT this stock and investigate the ludicrous and dangerous claim that they designed a vaccine in 3 hours. This has been a serial stock promotion for years. This will trade back to $2. Investors have been warned.” In 2016, Left was banned for five years from Hong Kong’s financial markets and fined for market manipulation.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation granted Inovio $5 million to accelerate the testing of a proprietary smart device for intradermal delivery of a vaccine to treat the coronavirus. The Daily Beast reports, “A prominent and impartial scientist said that it was neither ridiculous nor dangerous for Kim (Inovio’s CEO) to have claimed Inovio had designed a vaccine in three hours. The scientist said graduate students routinely perform the same basic process.” INO closed Monday at $6.62. INO was featured on “60 Minutes” last weekend. Obviously, the world needs a coronavirus vaccine. I am holding.
If you bought the UBER puts that I recommended, you’re in luck. Few people want to drive or ride in an Uber lately, and the company already loses $1 billion per quarter. Uber has fallen from $41 as low as $14.39, and, depending on your strike price, the puts have accelerated even faster. I have sold out of that position.
The depth of this crisis is currently unknown. Some companies have no discernable future other than government intervention. Boeing (BA), for instance, has three problems: (1) its new planes crashed (2) its airline customers are seeking a $50 billion bailout (3) it has committed to buying Brazilian jet-maker Embraer for $4.2 billion. BA has dropped from $344 to $106.
Some profitable tech companies have cash to weather the storm and excellent long-term prospects. These are the companies worth buying at a discount that will take off when this bleak period is behind us.
Send feedback to email@example.com. Investment recommendations are solely those of the columnist, and are presented for discussion purposes. Investors are advised to conduct their own research and that past stock performance is no guarantee of future price.