Strategy Note / Global

The grim choice between death by Covid-19 or starvation in poorer EMs

  • You're in charge of a poor country in the time of Covid-19: Do you minimise death from Covid-19 or from starvation?
  • You’re an investor in that country: Would you prefer reigniting the economy and combating starvation over Covid-19?
  • Without a vaccine, this is an uncomfortable, mutually exclusive choice, isn’t it? Get ready to make it.
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Social distancing reduces the rate of growth of Covid-19 infections and reduces the loss of life from over-burdened healthcare systems. However, the side-effect of a sudden stop in the economy leads to loss of income, erosion of wealth, an increase in insecurity and poverty, and a rise in deaths from starvation.

Compared to poorer economies with generally lower fiscal buffers, richer economies can offset some of the economic impact using fiscal buffers (tax cuts, subsidy increases), monetary policy (rate cuts, quantitative easing, direct support for financial markets), and regulation (lower banking reserve requirements, delayed recognition for non-performing loans), without destroying policy credibility and sparking capital flight. 

And among the richer countries, the US has the exceptional characteristic that, as the global reserve currency of choice, its currency is regarded as a safe haven in times of crisis and its cost of capital is structurally lower than all others.

Who wants to be a leader in the time of Covid-19? 

Is a Hobbesian Hobson’s choice for policy-makers fast approaching, particularly, in poorer countries: A choice between death by Covid-19 or by starvation? The tension to roll back social distancing policy is evident in the public political discourse across all countries where such discourse is allowed, whether developed ones like the US and the UK, large emerging ones like Brazil and India, small emerging and frontier ones like Sri Lanka.

Competent authoritarian governments may find this question easier to answer, particularly if those governments have significant financial buffers to draw on, have mass populations accustomed to severe economic hardship or retain total control of the security apparatus. China, Iran, Russia, Saudi, Tanzania, Thailand, or Zimbabwe, for example, might fit into one of these categories. Opportunistic political leaders seeking to establish a more authoritarian regime may exploit this dilemma, eg in Brazil, Hungary, Poland, or Sri Lanka. But for politically legitimate governments, not led by authoritarian-leaning politicians, this question will be much tougher.

Consider the example of Pakistan. The government has political legitimacy: an elected Parliamentary majority with a charismatic leader and a sufficiently supportive deep-state of military and intelligence services. It also has technocratic competence: a prime minister, finance ministry and an independent central bank, which has quickly pivoted from IMF-ingrained orthodoxy (of fiscal deficit cuts, inflation control, rebuilding FX reserves, allowing some FX rate flexibility) to drastically loosening fiscal, monetary and regulatory policies, at the same time as maintaining open communication and constructive relations with the IMF, commercial and bilateral lenders. The government has been open in its messaging to the domestic population on the Covid-19 versus starvation choice and the need for further international economic assistance. For all its shortcomings in social justice, democratic imperfection, and historic economic mismanagement, Pakistan’s attempts to navigate all the complexity of this dilemma has been impressive (for example, it did not, like South Africa, wait a month after its lock-down to launch its fiscal response or, like Brazil, see its leader belittle Covid-19 and attend an anti-lock-down rally even when close to 40,000 cases had been confirmed).

Much higher urban population density, which means that social distancing may not work as a Covid-19 response anyway, and younger populations, which means that overall fatality rates from Covid-19 should be lower, may increasingly force the hand of the likes of PM Imran Khan in Pakistan to choose the lesser evil: fewer deaths from Covid-19 than from starvation. If he rolls back social distancing, will financial assets rally in the face of higher reported Covid-19 deaths?

But you're already an investor...

Individuals, societies, nation states, and the human race make these decisions all the time. Inequality, in all its forms (income, wealth, opportunities, freedoms, rights, or, even, the basic necessities for survival) would not otherwise exist. It is just that in many respects these choices and their consequences are glossed over, put out of sight, or were made so long ago that they have been forgotten altogether. Covid-19 is bringing this sort of choice to the fore in a way that climate change has not. For significant parts of the population in poorer countries, this is literally about life and death. For investors in these countries it could as quickly become one of enormous financial losses (the economic sudden stop from social distancing will destroy businesses) or gains (a return to a more normal economic environment will mean that current valuations are extraordinarily attractive).

The majority of institutional investors, in my experience, never honestly confess to the moral decisions implicit in their investment decisions: some have a penchant for Consumer stocks and are comfortable with the deleterious effects on society from suppliers of beer, liquor, junk food, and tobacco; some claim to be “Shariah” compliant but will gloss over what look, feel and smell like interest-bearing instruments; some will declare themselves as champions of human rights but enthusiastically invest in authoritarian countries; and some will operate under the 'woke' marketing banner of socially-responsible, sustainable, investing while effectively green-washing many of the inextricable links of their investments with the non-“ESG” economy.

For investors in the poorer emerging and frontier markets, a moment is approaching when they will have to make another one of these implicit moral decisions. Thus far, that decision has been put off by initial denial that Covid-19 was not going to be such a global problem, by hopes that social distancing will be a successful response or that international assistance will be forthcoming quickly enough to offset the economic sudden-stop, or by the reality that the most vulnerable part of the population (the elderly) is also the one that is best represented in the corridors of power. We are likely approaching the end of that phase of this crisis.

And what happens after starvation is prioritised over Covid-19?

Lastly, after taking that implicit moral decision, investors will then have to grapple with the risk that while the wheels of the domestic economy will start turning again, the international community may increasingly treat those countries, which do not prioritise Covid-19, as a pariah in terms of limiting the travel of individuals, for leisure or business, in and out of those countries.

Related reading

Crisis economic policy response so far: constraint in small EM, FM

Vietnam lockdown: you still assume China normalises soon or India copes well?

India: The sum of EM coronavirus fears

Coronavirus: Informal workforce inhibits response in some FM-EM

Coronavirus: extreme population density inhibits social distancing in some FM-EM

Aged Leaders: Nigeria's Kyari Covid-19 death a reminder of elite succession risk

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Equity Analysis / Global

Will Africa's poor drive consumer spending after Covid-19?

  • Covid-19 may have blunted the African poor, but they remain the main engine of consumption on in the continent
  • We return to our proprietary metric that rates companies on their ability to target the poor – the PEP factor
  • Nestle Nigeria (NESTLE NL), Unilever Nigeria (UNILEVER NL) and East Africa Breweries (EABL KN) rank high on our metric
Nirgunan Tiruchelvam @ Tellimer Research
19 May 2020
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Covid-19 has devastated the lives of Africa's poor. In many countries, the lockdowns have halted the income of day labourers, and curbed their spending. 

Day labourers work primarily in construction, transport and hospitality. They are an engine of consumption, but the World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that a quarter of billion people could face a food crisis if the lockdown eases.

Some countries are beginning to ease lockdowns, and companies across the continent have been proactive in dealing with the new reality. Unilever Nigeria has been packaging hygiene products (Sunlight Soap and Lifebuoy) in small unit sizes to target the bottom of the pyramid. With the easing, the pivotal role that the African poor pays in consumption growth will again be apparent. 

How can African companies better target the poor? 

Companies can successfully target the poor by selling products in small units, accepting low margins per unit and targeting high volumes. 

They can achieve superior margins by segmenting their product mix to the poor. Unilever India and Petra Foods have successfully targeted the poor using this strategy.

The management theorist CK Prahalad has argued that the poor occupy a lucrative part of the consumer story in emerging markets. He developed this framework in his book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid – Eradicating Poverty Through Profits (published 2004).

Three distinct aspects of the thesis about the fortune that exists at the BOP level are:

  1. Consumers who live at the bottom of the income scale collectively represent billions of dollars’ worth of demand.
  2. These consumers will account for much of the growth in global demand in the future.
  3. Companies that target the poor need to frame their business model appropriately. Prahalad summarises his approach as, “if we stop thinking of the poor as victims or as a burden and start recognising them as resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers, a whole new world of opportunity will open up.”

Targeting the poor can be profitable even in the midst of Covid-19. This economic opportunity is valued globally at US$13tn a year, according to the World Bank.

Three Pillars of the Bottom of the Pyramid

To target the bottom of the pyramid, companies must adopt three strategies. 

1. Small unit packages

Consumer firms must be proactive to target the BOP. The unit price must cater to people whose daily disposable spending is less than US$4. For instance, Unilever Nigeria sells shampoos in single-use sachets that carry less than 25ml of liquid. These are priced at below US¢40. Shampoo in small sachets has proved popular even during the lockdowns. 

There are several examples of small unit sizes providing an avenue to target the poor in developing countries. Sachet marketing is a prominent category:

  1. In Brazil, Unilever produces Ala, a brand detergent. This caters to people who previously washed using detergent in the river water.
  2. In India, Unilever produces Sunsilk shampoo in units of US¢2–4.
  3. In Tanzania, Key soap is sold in tiny units for a couple of US cents.

2. Low margin per unit

Instead of imposing a premium on the poor, targeting the poor requires an expectation and acceptance of low margin. The gross margin per unit of shampoo may be half the margin that can be derived from high-end customers.

3. High volumes

While margins may be lower, the BOP presents scale opportunities. Annual shampoo consumption in Nigeria is just 120ml per capita, which is a fraction of Western levels. But, the country has a population of 195mn, which means that the total shampoo market that Unilever Nigeria can address is already similar to the Belgian shampoo market. 

The PEP factor?

Consumer companies have unique challenges in Africa. One is the need to target the BOP through a combination of small unit sizes, high volumes and low margin per unit. The companies that employ these strategies enjoy superior growth to their peers.

We employ a proprietary framework that rates a company’s ability to target poorer customers, as well as the company’s financial health. Our metric is called the Productive Exposure to the Poor (PEP) framework. The PEP assigns a single score for each selected company based on its ranking under seven criteria. 

Our PEP framework is available to Insights Pro subscribers.

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Strategy Note / Croatia

Croatia tourism sector: Dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic

  • This report looks at the impact of Covid-19 on Croatia tourism
  • It also provides our forecast and extensive overview of the Croatia tourism sector
  • We compare different measures taken by different tourism-reliant countries and leading global hospitality players
InterCapital Research Team @ InterCapital
24 April 2020
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The Covid-19 pandemic impacts all industries across the globe, with tourism and travel sector in particular experiencing serious adverse effects given the increasing travel restrictions, major event cancellations and overall risk aversion to travel domestically and internationally. While it is still unclear how the situation will evolve over the coming months and when a vaccine will be ready, it is certain that the industry will be fundamentally reshaped. 

In this 21-page report, our Investment Banking team worked with HD Consulting to provide an overview of the potential impact of Covid-19 on Croatia tourism and related sectors as well as a comparison of different measures undertaken by various tourism-reliant countries and leading global hospitality players.

Key topics covered:

  • Coronavirus pandemic – impact as of 21 April  2020 
  • Covid-19 Impact on travel & tourism industry - global perspective 
  • Comparison of Covid-19 fiscal measures among tourism countries
  • Actions and measures taken by the leading global hospitality players 
  • Travel industry and historical events – what can we expect? 
  • Tourism of croatia – historic context 
  • Croatia tourism overview 
  • Significant reliance on foreign economies 
  • Impact of regional economies on Croatian GDP
  • Disruptions in the sector caused by Covid-19 
  • Leading hospitality companies and their consumption of domestic products 
  • Covid-19 impact and forecast for Croatia 
  • Hospitality companies in Croatia – immediate responses 
  • Hospitality companies in Croatia – post-crisis actions and future challenges 
  • Is there a way through for hospitality players?

The full 21-page report is available for Insights Pro subscribers.

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Macro Analysis / Global

Covid-19: The Emerging Markets best-placed to withstand the pandemic

  • We look at the ability to withstand Covid-19 domestically and the ability to weather the external economic storm
  • The BRIC economies appear relatively well positioned, as do Kazakhstan and Saudi ‒ together, the ‘BRICKS’
  • South America is positioned well, but African countries seem exposed, and emerging Europe is particularly poorly placed
Paul Domjan @ Tellimer Research
17 April 2020
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Having argued that Africa is better placed to cope with Covid-19 than many realise and that the impact of Covid-19 on EMs will be as much through the withdrawal of external demand (as developed countries hibernate) as through the domestic impact of the virus, a number of readers have asked me to break this down with data to show which developing markets are best placed to cope ‒ both with the domestic impact of the virus itself and with the withdrawal of external demand.

To avoid preconceptions about the results and allow the data to speak for itself, I have identified the relevant data, assembled it using percentile ranks to transform the data to a common scale,[1] and then built two indices:[2] ability to withstand Covid-19 domestically and ability to weather the external economic storm.

So, without further ado, this is the EM and FM investable universe. I was surprised by some of the results, and I’m sure that you will be, too:

Figure 1: Global vulnerability to Covid-19 (interactive chart; hover over countries for more detail)

Source: Tellimer Research, Paul Domjan

At a high level, we can draw at least four conclusions from this initial data:

  • The largest EMs appear relatively well positioned to cope with the crisis domestically and to withstand the withdrawal of external demand as developed markets hibernate: This includes all four BRIC (but not the S of South Africa), along with Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia, albeit for very different reasons. From the perspective of portfolio strategy (and spelling pedantry), this gives us new ‘BRICKS’ that can form the core of a Covid-19-resilient approach to EM investing.
  • African countries appear more exposed: Despite the various advantages that I have previously argued that Africa has in dealing with Covid-19, some of which, like previous experience of Ebola and lack of indoor spaces are not reflected in this data, in this model African countries tend to score worse than the rest of the developing world because of a high level of co-morbidity and poor systems for both health care and public health.
  • Emerging Europe appears to be particularly badly positioned: These countries have elderly, densely packed populations; high levels of travel; high levels of co-morbidity; and only mediocre public health capabilities at points of entry. They are also exposed externally, as highly trade-dependent economies with low levels of savings and reserves. EU assistance, and particularly EU coronabonds, would be a key lifeline for these countries.
  • South America scores quite well as a region: It benefits from lower population density and travel and, in many countries, strong public health administration at points of entry. South American economies also benefit from lower reliance on trade and a greater share of food, which developed countries will still import during hibernation, in their exports.

Going deeper, let us look at three particularly strong performers, and three particularly weak ones.

Strong performers

  • Brazil: Although no quantitative data can capture President Bolsonaro’s negative impact on Brazil’s Covid-19 response, our model suggests that, fortunately, Brazil begins the crisis in a relatively strong position to cope. Although it is a highly urbanised country with high-profile slums, overall population density and the percentage of the urban population living in the slums are relatively low. Travel within Brazil is limited, reducing the risk of the disease spreading. Brazil is also positioned well to survive economically while developed markets hibernate, as trade is a relatively small share of GDP, and food, which developed countries will still import during hibernation, represents a large share of its exports. The country suffers from low domestic savings, but has little reliance on remittances from abroad.
  • Russia benefits from a well-developed hospital network, limited domestic travel and strong administration at ports, but its vulnerability is increased by low temperatures, an elderly age structure and relatively high levels of co-morbidity. It also benefits from large reserves and a high savings rate, while the Russia-OPEC agreement to cut production will help maintain its oil and gas export earnings.
  • Sri Lanka: Although Sri Lanka’s reliance on remittances and tourism, combined with limited reserves and a low savings rate, leave it exposed to a withdrawal of external demand during hibernation, its low levels of urbanisation, a relatively small share of the urban population living in slums, limited travel, high temperatures and surprisingly extensive hospital network leave it relatively well-prepared domestically.

Vulnerable countries

  • Hungary: Although Hungary has a large hospital network, it suffers from a large elderly population, high levels of co-morbidity, low temperatures, high levels of travel and mediocre health administration at ports of entry. Externally, low reserves, a very large share of trade in GDP and reliance on remittances leave it exposed to a withdrawal of developed market demand during hibernation.
  • Pakistan: High density, significant slums, a very underdeveloped hospital network and high levels of both travel and co-morbidity leave Pakistan very exposed domestically, while limited reserves, poor quality public administration, low domestic savings and high reliance on remittances leave it exposed externally.
  • Botswana: Despite a strong external position, supported by large reserves and domestic savings, exceptionally high levels of co-morbidity drive significant domestic risk.

In this report, I will explore domestic vulnerability in detail, and what this data looks like globally. The forthcoming second part will go into detail about countries’ ability to weather the storm externally.

Domestically, most developing markets lack the ability to easily hibernate, so we look at how able they are to manage infections and how likely the virus is to spread. It is important to remember that developing markets are hugely heterogenous, and, even within countries, some regions, such as Kerala in India, are responding more effectively than their peers ‒ so not all of these factors will have the same relevance for all economies. Moreover, data is not available for some important factors, such as on past experience of epidemics, the availability of quarantine facilities and the availability of ventilators and intensive care beds.

Accepting these caveats, I have assembled 10 factors to approximate domestic vulnerability. Not all readers will agreed with the factors I have chosen or my decision to weight them equally, so I have provided access to the complete scaled dataset, as well as visualisations of each factor (green on the maps equates to resilience against the economic impact of Covid-19 on that factor; purple indicates weakness), to allow you to focus on the factors you consider most relevant or to construct your own index.

To successfully withstand Covid-19 domestically, a developing country needs:

1. Low population density: Tellimer’s Hasnain Malik has argued that extreme population density is a significant challenge to the ability of developing markets to respond to Covid-19. Low population density reduces the likelihood of the disease spreading and makes it easier to implement social distancing measures.

Figure 2: Low population density reduces Covid-19 vulnerability - interactive chart

2. Small percentage of the urban population in slums: Similarly, the fewer people who live in slums, the easier it is to implement social distancing. Moreover, people in slums are more likely to be migrants from the countryside, without social and family support networks in the cities upon which to fall back.

Figure 3: Urban slums are an ideal breeding ground for Covid-19 (% of urban population living in slums) - interactive chart

3. Low level of urbanisation: The more rural the country is, the less likely people are to come together and transmit the virus. Moreover, rural residents are more likely to have local support structures, and a lower level of urbanisation makes it less likely that urban residents will seek to return to families in rural areas during lockdown.

Figure 4: Low levels of urbanisation may slow spread of Covid-19 - interactive chart

4. Large percentage of homes with access to soap and water handwashing: Basic hygiene is the first line of defence against Covid-19 and, sadly, many areas of the world still lack even basic soap and water handwashing. Simple equipment like this can make a big difference:

Figure 5: Basic home handwashing facilities with soap and water are the first line of defense against Covid-19 - interactive chart

5. Small amount of travel: Travel spreads Covid-19, and the amount of travel varies hugely around the world. Countries that already have very low levels of travel ‒ both domestic trips and international arrivals ‒ are less likely to experience rapid spread of the virus.

Figure 6: Less travel can limit the spread of Covid-19 (overnight tourist trips per capita, domestic and international) - interactive chart

6. Small percentage of the population over 65: While Covid-19 does pose a risk to younger, healthy people, the greatest risk appears to be the to the elderly, who represent a very small share of the population in many developing markets.

Figure 7: A lower percentage of the population over the age of 65 reduces Covid-19 risk - interactive chart

7. Low incidence of Covid-19 co-morbidities: Where Covid-19 does impact the young, it tends to be a result of co-morbidities. I have modelled this using HIV, tuberculosis, respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes prevalence (for the former two) and mortality (for the latter four) rates.

Figure 8: Higher incidence of co-morbidities increases  risk of Covid-19 (worst co-morbidity score among HIV, TB, and aggregate of cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cancer and diabetes) - interactive chart

8. High average May temperature: Research on other coronaviruses suggest that they are less likely to be transmitted during warmer weather. Although it is too early to know for sure whether the same with be true of Covid-19, areas with higher average May temperatures could experience a slower spread and lower incidence of the virus.

Figure 9: Higher May temperatures may slow the spread of Covid-19 - interactive chart

9. High quality of the health administration at ports of entry: The WHO tracks the implementations of its recommendations for public health administration at points of entry, which indicates which countries have the capability to reduce the importation of Covid-19.

Figure 10: Strong public health capacity at Point of Entry helps to avoid importation of Covid-19 - interactive chart

10. Large number of hospital beds: Although many developing countries have limited medical resources, the number of hospital beds per 1,000 people gives an indication of the ability of the health system to respond to rising infections.

Figure 11: More hospital beds per 1,000 people increases a country's ability to cope with Covid-19 cases - interactive chart

[1] Two data series ‒ quality of public health at ports of entry and quality of public administration ‒ are already indices, so I used linear rescaling to transform this data.

[2] The index value is the simple average of all rescaled data available for each individual country. Not all data is available for all countries, and I have ignored missing data rather than attempt to impute a value.

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Strategy Note / Vietnam

Vietnam: Let's talk about sex (and population aging)

  • While the world worries about deaths, Vietnam is also focusing on births to address population aging risk
  • Vietnam's population has started ageing at a lower income level than seen in East Asia peers
  • New policies this week aim to increase the low fertility rate (slow the increase in old age dependency)
Hasnain Malik @ Tellimer Research
6 May 2020
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While the world is fixated with reducing the economic disruption and deaths from the pandemic, Vietnam has lifted its lock-down, registered no deaths and is tinkering with public policies to promote more births. Perhaps nothing so exemplifies Vietnam's position as one of the most dynamic countries in emerging markets.

In Vietnam, the old age dependency ratio (the number of people aged over 60 divided by the number of people between 15-59) is expected to double in the next 25 years, according to UN projections. Vietnam's working age population likely peaks later this decade at much lower GDP per capita levels than seen in East Asia peers.

This makes for a very attractive consumer market right now (with so much of the population in their best earning years), but it stores up problems down the line. Ultimately, the supply of productive labour slows (which drives wage inflation), and the fiscal costs of public health care and pensions (coverage is merely 20% of the formal labour force currently and, for most retirees, public pension benefits start after the age of 80, according to the World Bank) accelerate. 

The two main policy tools to change this demographic trajectory are to raise the retirement ages and to encourage higher fertility rates.

In November 2019, a timetable for retirement age increases was brought into law: on a gradual basis over 2021-28, the retirement age would increase to 62 from 60 for men, and to 60 from 55 for women. 

This week, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc introduced the following measures under the 2030 national population strategy:

  1. Target fertility rate increase by 10 percentage points in areas where couples average less than two children (there is substantial regional variation around the target nationwide average of 2.2 children per woman of reproductive age, with around a 40% lower figure in Ho Chi Minh City  a city where the population is growing relatively fast and is a recipient of migrants, mainly female, from rural areas);
  2. Income tax cuts, and subsidies for education and housing for couples with two children;
  3. Marriage and family consultation services (eg match-making clubs) piloted by local authorities;
  4. Health-care and malnutrition consultation services for pregnant women.

In what remains a positive top-down view of the Vietnam investment case, we have highlighted, in previous reports, rapid population aging as being among other noteworthy risks (eg low foreign ownership room in equities, sluggish state-owned enterprise reform and light capital buffers in the banking system). 

Related reading

Vietnam: Still high growth, low accessibility, 11 April 2019

Vietnam: Flows and fundamentals invalidate our caution, 19 March 2018

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Macro Analysis / Global

Covid-19: Download our Emerging Markets vulnerability data model

  • Many commentators have weighed into the debate about which countries will be most affected by Covid-19; I use data
  • I also provide data to assess ability to withstand the collapse in trade during global lockdown and economic hibernation
  • I provide a downloadable model that allows you to tailor the indices to your views about how best to assess exposure
Paul Domjan @ Tellimer Research
29 April 2020
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I’ve previously argued that there are two main axes of risk for emerging markets from Covid-19: domestic exposure to the virus and the ability to withstand the withdrawal of external demand during global hibernation.  

Global vulnerability to Covid-19 (interactive chart; hover over countries for more detail)

Source: Tellimer Research, Paul Domjan

Both of these are complex issues, and we have had robust debates within Tellimer about which factors matter most. 

Exposure to developed market lockdowns may be harder to assess than domestic exposure to the virus itself given the complexity global interconnections that become channels of contagion, and there has certainly been less research to develop a framework with which at assess it. 

I provided one approach, using 18 factors, to measure both axes of risk. However, you may disagree with the relevance and weighting of some of these factors. 

The downloadable workbook I provide for Tellimer Insights Pro subscribers (please log in to your account or contact Tellimer Sales to upgrade) allows you to tailor the data according to your preferences, removing factors and countries, and adjusting weights, as you see fit.

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