PANDEMECONOMICS

The Great Pause.  The Great Realisation.  Amidst the rising case counts, fatalities, isolation and eye-popping economic collapse, there are some who are finding as much future salvation as present desolation in our pandemic-induced trauma.

And some available metadata might agree with them.  I am not a creature of social media of any sort, so I never expect to see much of the data gathered from it let alone be among those whose data has been mined for fun or profit.  Except for one thing.  I do wear a Fitbit religiously, and it tracks my steps, my activity, my heart rate and the quality of my sleep.

Like all unwitting providers of personal data in the surveillance economy, I have never thought about what use Fitbit might make of this peculiar but undeniably intensely personal data.  On May 3rd, they let me in on just some of their analytical skullduggery.  An otherwise innocuous Fitbit Weekly Boost appeared in my e-mail that day and reported some interesting data that they had recently aggregated.  It seems that since mid-March, average resting heart rates of North American Fitbit wearers have been trending downward, with a reported reduction of 1.26 beats per minute among 18 to 29-year olds.  They didn’t report the numbers for seniors like myself, but I can anecdotally report that my own average resting heart rate is down by just a titch less than that amount since mid-March.

This despite lockdown conditions that have lowered average steps per day among all age groups (true here as well), countered ably among 42% of wearers by a corresponding increase in their active minutes in that period and a further 31% who have at least maintained their level of active minutes.  Furthermore, 45% of wearers have increased their average sleep duration, with another 30% at least maintaining their prior sleep duration.  They also note that wearers of all ages are going to bed earlier on weekends and later on weekdays, thereby reducing bedtime variability, another known contributor to more healthy sleep.

So, I thought, perhaps there is some merit to the idea that this pandemic disruption will be the catalyst to the development of personal habits that contribute to healthier living.  Maybe we will indeed emerge from our mandatory isolation with a new appreciation for and corresponding commitment to lives in better balance, with unthinking and unblinking consumerism nudged away just a touch in favour of a healthy dose of introspection and downtime.

Certainly that is what the equity markets think.  No more than a pause in corporate earnings has to date been priced into the markets.  Oh sure, the market is pricing in lingering shifts away from travel and hospitality, some medium-term retrenchment in office and retail real estate, but the market otherwise assumes a quick recovery with just a reorienting of a few consumer priorities.

From the relatively benign performance of global markets to date, one must assume that most equity market participants wear Fitbits, or at least get Fitbit’s Weekly Boosts.  And that would not be surprising if true, because I would suspect that the typical Fitbit wearer, like me, lands on the right side of the income distribution curve, as do most of those making decisions with respect to funds invested in equity markets.

Unfortunately, the reality is a little different for those who can’t afford the cost of self-actualizing support tools like the Fitbit, and/or could not be bothered with such self-indulgence even if they could.  They are the people working low-paying part-time jobs in long term care homes, facing even higher incidences of infection than their higher paid counterparts in hospitals with poorer working conditions and less effective and plentiful protective equipment.  They are also the people who are among the 38 million people in North America who have to date lost jobs since the onset of the pandemic, whose already precarious income is reflected in the fact that the loss of their jobs has resulted in a remarkable rise in the average income of employed people in both Canada and the US over that same period.  They are the people whose lower paying jobs in hotels, airports, casinos and retail stores are the least likely to bounce back as we enlightened Fitbit wearer retool our priorities.  They are the people facing the reality that the relentless daily reporting of negative macroeconomic data is signalling the onset of another Depression that has somehow been blithely discounted by equity markets.

Maybe we need to get those people Fitbits, so we can see where their heart rates, fitness practices and sleep patterns are at.  Maybe that is the Even Greater Realisation that we need to pause to reflect on.

But not for too long.  Don’t want to get our heart rates too high.

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