‘My Head Is About to Explode’: Virus Jargon Is Schooling Traders

R0. nCov. Super spreader. The nomenclature of disease is the new financial jargon. To figure it out, traders are looking beyond Wall Street.

Strategists note they are “not epidemiologists.” Nor are they doctors or biologists or virologists. But getting up to speed on each has become an urgent matter for anyone trying to navigate markets in the coronavirus age. As a result, specialty sites offering answers have seen interest surge.

“It’s like, oh my god my head is about to explode, I’m not a scientist,” said Ryan Detrick, senior market strategist for LPL Financial. “We’re trying to quickly learn new jargon that people have spent decades learning.”

Take STAT, suddenly the go-to site for analysts and investors in need of a quick read on complicated news. The Boston Globe offshoot has had a star turn in recent weeks following the release of complex data in two vaccine efforts. Analyses on the site swayed hundreds of billions of dollars in stock market value.

Rick Berke, the co-founder and executive editor, says he’d seen the agency’s coverage affecting markets from time to time in the past, but nothing like this. In 2019, average monthly traffic was under 2 million unique visitors. That spiked to 24 million in March and stayed elevated in April at around 13 million.

“We have built a loyal and passionate audience in the U.S. and abroad over these past four-and-a-half years, but millions more readers have recently discovered STAT and now turn to us for our rigorous coverage of development of vaccines and treatments for Covid-19,” Berke said by email.

The blending of finance and biology is not a new story of the pandemic but its importance has never been more evident than in the past week. On Monday, the S&P 500 saw its best day in a month after positive early results for an experimental vaccine from Moderna Inc. sparked economic optimism. The rally fell apart 24 hours later after STAT said the results had a lot of holes. Stocks lost more than 1% on Tuesday and wiped out more than $250 billion in value.

LPL’s Detrick hadn’t heard of the news agency before its early reports about vaccine trials. He knows about it now, with the threat of information overload everywhere.

“There really is a lot of info and we are sharing it faster than ever,” he said. “Markets can really move fast when there is this much information flowing.”

STAT’s Wall Street moment arrived last month after it reported on a trial of Gilead Inc.’s drug remdesivir. The report cited a video in which researchers said some patients were seeing rapid recoveries in certain Covid-19 symptoms. The drugmaker’s shares surged, then fell the next day following a separate divulgence.

Of course, it’s not the first time investors have been forced to brush up on topics beyond finance to stay on top of market dynamics. Everything from meteorology to parliamentary politics has the potential to send markets reeling. At various times in recent years it has paid to be an expert in Greek electoral politics, global trade law and the workings of Germany’s constitutional court.

STAT, a competitor of Bloomberg News, isn’t the only provider to see a hike in demand for virus-related resources and coverage. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and Johns Hopkins University are among sources investors have turned to for their Covid-19 news fix.

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Prior to the outbreak, few were tracking STAT’s website. Now it’s driving the market, says John Ham, associate adviser at New England Investment and Retirement Group.

“Overnight, everybody got their Ph.D. in virology,” he said in an interview. Investors typically mired in the world of cash flow and valuation are suddenly feeling out of their element. “It’s made us more reliant on the news flow out of STAT and news commentators.”

Some have found that prior experience in the medical field has come in handy. Peter Cecchini, who was Cantor Fitzgerald’s chief market strategist, worked on cancer research as a student at Memorial Sloan Kettering in Rye, New York.

“The process of learning is constant, but the pre-med training I had laid a foundation for at least attempting to understand what is going on as a lay person,” said Cecchini, who resigned from the Cantor post this week. Still, it’s a steep learning curve and humility is key right now given that even scientists are hotly debating many vaccine results, he said.

In its reporting this week on Moderna’s vaccine data, STAT cited the lack of a press release from the U.S. National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and cited experts who said they were waiting to see more data from the company before drawing a conclusion.

Nela Richardson, an investment strategist at Edward Jones, says investors need to examine scientific announcements the same way they’d scrutinize earnings reports.

“They look under the hood, they see the balance sheet, the liquidity, the cash flow — it’s not just about the top-line number,” she said by phone. “In the same way when it comes to company reports, private reports of scientific results, looking under the hood is going to be important to really understand whether these vaccines have legs or not.”

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