We’ve passed another milestone – the first collective quarantine holiday. Whether the weekend had three, four or (in the lucky case of Qingming-observing Hongkongers) five days, this week we return to the office after an extended break. Storylines are diverging globally, as Asia considers additional restrictions, some countries explore limited resumption of work, and America debates additional stimulus.
Cognito Director Benjamin Thiele-Long and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) will host a webinar on “Managing Communications in a Time of Crisis: Learnings From the Impact of Covid-19.” Enroll here for the session, which will be held April 30 from 3 to 4 p.m. New York time.
View from the Top
We are very much not out of the woods, but the very peak of the crisis – at least from the market’s perspective – seems to have passed. Volatility last week was down significantly, but still quite high as gyrations in the market became less pronounced. Expect more bumpy travel ahead as the data starts to pile up about just how much of an economic drain the virus caused, and the debate around how to return to ‘normal’ gets more pointed.
Equity investors remain hopeful, leading some wondering why U.S. markets are trading at levels from roughly 11 months ago. Earnings season may dampen positive sentiment as companies open up their books, beginning with the big banks. Bond issuance has been high, as a market still dominated by voice trading has found ways to adapt. The Asset writes, “You’d hardly know there was a public health crisis that is morphing into a potential economic bloodbath on the basis of what’s happening in the bond market.” The New York Times covered how traders are managing the crisis both at home and in the office, highlighting the pressure to remain at trading desks, and the potential market impact from working at home.
Banks around the world are struggling to disperse unprecedented amounts of loans. American Banker wrote on how, with gaps existing in the American Federal system, state elected officials are now adding more oversight – and become de facto banking regulators. (Check out this Planet Money report on the challenges of issuing small loans, which includes an American Banker reporter.) Similar pressure bubbled up in the United Kingdom, where the Guardian wrote that “just 4,200 of the estimated 300,000 firms that sought help online have received rescue loans” – a ratio of 1.4 percent. The Nikkei Asian Review reported that China’s biggest banks will likely have to set aside billions more than originally planned to cover loans that have soured due to the coronavirus pandemic, throwing Beijing's attempt to reignite the economy into jeopardy.
The fallout from commercial and residential mortgage payments continues to be the biggest unknown for banks, and as of right now it's trending in the wrong direction, writes Vanity Fair.
UK-based fintechs – primarily startup banks – have been excluded from helping with the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS). “Not a single fintech has been selected to help dole out its coronavirus business support package – and that’s telling,” the co-founder of LendInvest wrote in Sifted. But the U.S. Treasury released “a new lender application for non-bank lenders – including Square and PayPal,” which could help overwhelmed banks and increase access and speed of these funds to small businesses.
The UK fintech scene has created “Covid Credit” a joint effort to help businesses quantify and certify losses from the crisis. Next up is “Save My Local,” an expanded way to provide support to businesses to ensure viability. Both stories come from Steve O’Hear, one of the best reporters to read about how fintechs are seeing both pain and hope in the lockdown. Singapore’s Monetary Authority (MAS) announced a grant to help fintech firms with up to 200 employees offset the costs of implementing new digital solutions like cloud services, improved security and online productivity tools to minimize disruption.
Regulations shifted risk off banks’ balance sheets, creating an opportunity for non-bank lenders (private equity, institutional investment managers, mutual funds, hedge funds) to leverage their balance sheets after 2008. Robin Wigglesworth examines how this is impacting markets and the broader financial ecosystem in this week’s Big Read from the FT.
An allocator to hedge funds urged investors in Financial News to look at convertible bonds, structured credit and event driven strategies, as they will be able to exploit market trends. Articles in the more mainstream press struck an alarmist tone, with the Guardian bellowing “Hedge funds 'raking in billions' during coronavirus crisis” in a headline – repeating the attack of a trade unionist. The Economist’s Buttonwood column explains the key role of convertible preferred stock in unicorn valuations, with layers of such funding rounds often eroding the valuation of founders’ stakes when things go wrong, and creating misalignment between founders, early-stage VCs and later-stage investors.
The largest discussion this week was the role technology will play in facilitating a return to work. Apple and Google unveiled a comprehensive proposal to use bluetooth to data to anonymously assist in contact tracing. Some privacy concerns were raised, while other experts wondered if the data wouldn’t be accurate enough for widespread deployment. Development continues, primarily since as one expert said to the Telegraph that leaders are “holding their nose and going for it.”
Some governmental solutions are raising alarms – especially Russia’s digital permits and plans for invasive forms of contact tracing. Parts of the system mirror measures already in place in China and Singapore, but one of the government officials behind Singapore's contact tracing app spoke out to warn against an overreliance on tech versus manual contact tracing, wrote CNET.
Our vice chairman Andrew Marshall is reading The Economist cover to cover every week to keep a running tally of how many stories mention the pandemic in different ways. Here’s where we are:
More from Cognito
Cognito’s been adjusting services so they can be delivered entirely remotely. Charlie Morrow in our London office discusses how he’s created a new media training program that works remotely:
The agenda for training sessions is normally fairly tight to make the most of someone’s time. In a virtual world, having a clear and efficient running order is really important. We make sure people know when they have breaks, how long each section is and what they should be doing in between. For example, if you run a session with 2-3 people, those not being interviewed should turn off their camera and microphone while the others are. We’ve also tried to do shorter practice interviews, which keeps the intensity and energy up.
The emphasis in media training tends to land on in-person and broadcast interviews. However, because of the flexibility that virtual training affords you, we’ve been able to add in new styles of interviews more easily – including radio and telephone – meaning we can offer more customized sessions. We also advise in detail on how to look and sound in remote webcam interviews.
While the technology – so far – hasn’t failed us, it’s always important to have another plan up our sleeve. So we always share the slides with trainees in advance, just in case we need to go manual and talk trainees through things on a conference line.
The head of our Hong Kong office Dan Bradley talks about how a region based on face-to-face meetings and deep relationships is adjusting to remote ways of work.
The challenge is that a crucial weapon in the PR armoury has been significantly blunted by the current crisis: media introductions. This is a particular issue in Asia, where in-person meetings between reporters and business leaders have traditionally formed a central pillar of communications programmes.
Face-to-face, relationship-building activities have always counted for a lot in a culture that values social connections. Drastic restrictions on meetings have put this direct interaction on hold.
One tactic is proving to be particularly successful – the virtual roundtable. Roundtables have proven hugely popular as an effective way to share knowledge and insight into a particular topic. Switching the format online allows this communication to continue – providing reporters access to information and opinions, and clients the ability to keep building meaningful relationships.
Weekly Podcast Recommendation: Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction
CNN’s lead medical correspondent goes through short, easily digestible pieces that dive into the science – and provide ample ammunition against sketchy WhatsApp forwards and dubious Facebook shares from relatives and friends.