Every Stock is a Vaccine Stock

Barrons: General Electric stock was racing higher Tuesday, but not because of anything the company did or announced. Recent Covid-19 vaccine news is serving as a catalyst, and every stock these days feels like a vaccine stock.

Indeed, every stock is a vaccine stock. When vaccines or other treatments do well, all stocks do well which is why stock prices are now highly correlated:

Bloomberg: From beginning the year with a correlation of 0.19, the gauge of how closely the top stocks in the S&P 500 move in relation to one another spiked to 0.85 in mid-March, toward the peak of the coronavirus sell-off before leveling off around 0.8. A maximum possible correlation of 1.0 would signify all stocks are moving in lockstep.

It’s not surprising that when Moderna reports good vaccine results, Moderna does well. It’s more surprising that Boeing and GE not only do well they increase in value far more than Moderna. On May 18, for example, when Moderna announced very preliminary positive results on its vaccine it’s market capitalization rose by $5b. But GE’s market capitalization rose by $6.82 billion and Boeing increased in value by $8.73 billion.

A cure for COVID-19 would be worth trillions to the world but only billions to the creator. The stock market is illustrating the massive externalities created by innovation. Nordhaus estimated that only 2.2% of the value of innovation was captured by innovators. For vaccine manufacturers it’s probably closer to .2%.

Who can internalize the externalities? Moderna clearly can’t because if they could then on May 18 Moderna would have increased in value by $20.52b ($4.97b+$6.82b+$8.73b) and GE and Boeing wouldn’t have gone up at all. Massive externalities.

A clever institutional investor like Blackrock or Vanguard could internalize some of the externalities by encouraging Moderna to work even faster and invest even more, even to the extent of lowering Moderna’s profits. Blackrock would more than make up for the losses on Moderna by bigger gains on other firms in its portfolio. Blackrock does indeed understand the incentives, although its unclear how much beyond jawboning they can actually do, legally.

I’d like to see more innovation in mechanisms to internalize externalities–perhaps in a pandemic vaccine firms should be given stock options on the S&P 500. Until we develop those innovations, however, the government is the best bet at internalizing the externality by paying vaccine manufacturers to increase capacity and move more quickly than their own incentives would dictate. Billions in costs, trillions in benefits.


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