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May 18, 2020 | Entire U.S. Market Now Trades Like a Stock in Drug Trials

Rick Ackerman

Rick Ackerman is the editor of Rick’s Picks, an online service geared to traders of stocks, options, index futures and commodities. His detailed trading strategies have appeared since the early 1990s in Black Box Forecasts, a newsletter he founded that originally was geared to professional option traders. Barron’s once labeled him an “intrepid trader” in a headline that alluded to his key role in solving a notorious pill-tampering case. He received a $200,000 reward when a conviction resulted, and the story was retold on TV’s FBI: The Untold Story. His professional background includes 12 years as a market maker in the pits of the Pacific Coast Exchange, three as an investigator with renowned San Francisco private eye Hal Lipset, seven as a reporter and newspaper editor, three as a columnist for the Sunday San Francisco Examiner, and two decades as a contributor to publications ranging from Barron’s to The Antiquarian Bookman to Fleet Street Letter and Utne Reader.


Who could have imagined that the entire universe of U.S. stocks would someday trade like the shares of a small pharmaceutical company with a supposed miracle cure for cancer in the works? That, evidently, is what Wall Street has become: a drug-stock crap-shoot-on-steroids. The Dow Industrials shot up more than a thousand points Monday on word that a vaccine from Moderna was showing promise in initial tests on humans. To understand how far the Cambridge MA-based firm is from defeating Covid-19, consider what Bloomberg news had to say: “The vaccine trials are being conducted in stages, with the first test designed only to look at safety and whether or not the shot created lab markers of an immune-system response. Only in later stages of testing, to be conducted in thousands of patients starting in July, will the vaccine go up against the virus in the real world in a definitive test of whether it prevents or lessens infections.”

What Could Disappoint?

Ah, the real world!  What could possibly go wrong between now and July to disappoint investors? For starters, the drug could prove to be a total bust. That would not be unusual in the annals of drug testing. In fact, it is far more unusual when such disappointments do not happen. Considering speculators’ rabid exuberance on Monday for what is at best a longshot bet, disappointment in this case could cause shares to shed ten trillion dollars of value in day or two, in a global cascade that would make the 1929 Crash seem like a burp. To repeat: Big disappointment are the norm, not the exception, in the world of drug trials. Moderna’s efforts are inspiring boundless overconfidence simply because speculators are conflating the urgency of finding a cure with the likelihood of succeeding at it. It’s assumed that because finding a vaccine is the most urgent business of the world right now, that the combination of ten thousand scientific geniuses, unlimited venture capital and complete docility from the regulators is certain to produce a winning drug. But consider that untold sums fof money and more than a hundred years of intensive research have yet to produce a cure for the common cold.

Don’t expect such concerns to weigh down stocks, though, especially since the vaccine ‘story’ extends to ostensibly promising efforts under way in China and the University of Oxford. The rally could continue for yet a while longer, but it is already close to discounting a return to economic normalcy that is far more preposterous, even, than a world made immune to Covid-19 ‘soon’.

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May 18th, 2020

Posted In: Rick's Picks

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