Images of tear-gassed protesters, burning police cruisers, and looted shops may suggest a country that is coming apart. But that view is not shared on Wall Street.
The Standard & Poor’s 500 index of major companies rose again Tuesday, as it has every day (except for a modest drop Thursday) since May 25, when George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, igniting protests in a nation already wracked by a deadly virus and a deep economic slowdown.
To be sure, the Nasdaq stock market postponed Monday’s planned reopening of its coronavirus-shut Philadelphia trading floor in the FMC tower because, it said in a statement, “the current situation with demonstrations in the city of Philadelphia has escalated significantly.”
But electronic trading zoomed right along.
Stocks also rose in the months after the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and subsequent riots, the massive 1960s demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, noted Matt Topley, a partner in Fortis Wealth, a wealth-management firm in King of Prussia.
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Investors “look past most civil unrest” because it tends not to affect most U.S. companies’ sales or profits, even if Target, Dunkin and Starbucks outlets and some independent stores were looted in large numbers, Topley told clients.
Moreover, the relatively limited damage means insurance can pick up much of the recovery bill. That’s in sharp contrast to the coronavirus closures, so extensive that the insurance industry says it simply can’t bail everyone out.
Though this is the first “riot and civil disorder event” in recent years to break out in many states at once, “riot catastrophes in the United States have had relatively low industry losses,” according to Tom Johansmeyer, head of Property Claim Services, which estimates losses for insurers.
Perhaps it’s surprising that he puts the total loss at just $1 billion from decades of urban disturbances, from the urban riots of 1965 though the unrest in 2015 in Baltimore after Freddie Gray died in police custody. More than half of those payouts went to businesses wrecked in Los Angeles following the 1992 acquittal of police officers who had beaten Rodney King,
By comparison, insurers paid $19 billion after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 tore through much of the Jersey shore and $41 billion after Katrina in 2005 slammed New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
His analysis was echoed by a team of Wells Fargo Securities analysts headed by Elyse Greenspan.
“Our sense is that this will be a manageable loss for the insurance industry,” the analysts reported to investors.
Losses are expected to be most severe for a handful of national chains that bet big on urban locations and saw some stores thoroughly looted.
Still, Adam Ozimek, chief economist for Upwork, a freelance labor platform, predicted the rioting would have a fairly limited impact on the American economy.
“Obviously it reflects serious underlying problems and the damage to individual lives and businesses is quite serious,” he said. Nonetheless, Ozimek said damages so far amounted to a fraction of the economic toll of coronavirus
Even if the United States as a whole shrugs off the financial cost of the riots, damage could disproportionately pile up in cities such as Philadelphia.
“A large number of businesses may not come back,” said Robert Farnum, insurance analyst at Boenning & Scattergood in West Conshohocken.
Big chains such as Starbucks and Dunkin “will probably still want to be in cities, where the coffee drinkers are," Farnum said. But independent shops may feel more pressed to call it quits.
Eric Kazatsky, bond analyst at Bloomberg LP, says cities short-term will likely be hit hard by the costs generated by the unrest, facing bills for everything from torched police vehicles to police overtime. Longer term, though, he said he saw “no real impact” on municipal government finances, predicting that federal money would likely arrive to patch much of the revenue holes.
Still, after rioters destroyed more than 200 businesses in North Philadelphia in the 1964 riots — one of the first such outbreaks of of the modern era — that part of the city arguably never came back until recently.
Similarly, Kazatsky said he thinks marginal neighborhood shopping strips that suffered riot damage could be pushed to the brink or over it.
Thus, he said, the disturbances would ratchet up the pressure on mayors such as Philadelphia’s Jim Kenney to find ways to bolster small businesses. Tax breaks, Kazatsky said, may be needed to purchase “the appearance of normalcy.”
The riots may persuade the federal government to add urban aid to the latest coronavirus relief package under debate in Congress, according to Brian Gardner, government analyst for New York investment bank Keefe Bruyette & Woods.
Such aid is vital, according to Philadelphia City Councilwoman Kendra Brooks. She said more government spending was needed for “basic necessities that have been withheld from black communities," money for such priorities as affordable housing, improved schools, solid jobs and better policing.
"We also need to see more state and federal aid for small-business owners and our city as a whole, because Philadelphia can’t foot the bill alone,” Brooks said.