4 things for businesses to think about amid coronavirus concerns and market volatility

Businesses had been looking forward to economic progress in 2020. The spread of coronavirus to more than 80 countries in recent weeks has dampened some of the optimism. But business leaders can approach this health crisis with the same rigorous planning and persistent effort they rely on every day.

Bob Baur, Ph.D., chief global economist for Principal®, says to keep in mind that the virus’ spread is “an event, not a trend. Whatever you do, don’t be scared into doing something you might regret if this doesn’t turn out to be the worst-case scenario".

Here are ideas and possible responses to market concerns for you to consider: 

1. Health and well-being of employees

It’s natural for a business owner’s first thought to be responsibility for the safety of their employees. Keep the lines of communication open and encourage employees to ask their supervisors if they have questions about their personal travel or any aspect of the outbreak.

Dan Houston, chairman, president, and global CEO of Principal, struck an empathetic tone in his own message to the Principal workforce: “I understand these unknowns can seem scary, especially when they touch our families and our personal health,” he wrote. Houston also reinforced three key messages that hold true for businesses with even a single employee:

  1. Show that you prioritize employee safety.
  2. Reaffirm as much as possible the long-term stability of your business.
  3. Explain how your business mission and customer service still apply—or apply even more—in times of crisis.

2. Maintaining normal business operations—business continuity

Not every firm may have a business-continuity plan in place, and many likely do not have one specific to a global epidemic like the coronavirus. But the basic question is the same for any company: What are the critical functions you must have to meet the needs of customers? A few examples from our Principal risk management and security team:

  • Test early, before an emergency. Are you sure your staff has all the proper technology to simultaneously work from home? Try it for one morning, then adjust as necessary.
  • Who are the key people and functions you need to keep your business running? For a week? A month? If you’re the smallest of small businesses and feel like you already operate with minimal staffing, could you rely on a family member as emergency backup?
  • If one of your employees does become sick with the virus, are you confident your office can be quickly and properly deep-cleaned and restored to working order?

Each sector faces unique complications, but thinking through a few scenarios crucial to your business is time well spent. Document your discussions into a formal business continuity plan, so you can repeat it or build on it in the future.

3. Impact from financial markets and supply-chain issues

The financial markets had been somewhat “complacent and pricey,” Baur says, ahead of the dramatic coronavirus-inspired drop near the end of February. “All of what the markets should’ve been thinking about prior to last week happened in a week.”

Business owners also can keep an eye on their long-term security in this moment, says Baur. It may be a good time to refinance your long-term business debt, taking a hint from the housing market with historically low interest rates.

Something to note, says Baur, is that coronavirus may “accentuate or even accelerate the trend toward deglobalization.”

He recommends that business owners rethink their approach to the international supply chain. If you’re a small manufacturing firm relying on materials from China or another nation hit hard by the virus, this crisis may encourage you to explore ways to stabilize your sourcing.

It’s been a one-two-three punch: Rising wages in overseas manufacturing hubs such as China, followed by costs of the trade war, now have been complicated by the vulnerabilities in global supply shown by the outbreak.

For the smallest business owners who may find it hard to weather even a month or two of disruption, Baur says to drastically cut expenses. Ask your handful of employees to help the business survive if they’re in position to do so or enlist a relative. Talk to your bank or lender early, before your cash flow dries up.

4. What to tell employees about their savings and investments

“Don’t look at your retirement savings now—look at it in two months,” Baur says.

Remind employees that long-term investment growth and retirement savings require a long-game approach. The market noise and news headlines shouldn’t scare anyone into pulling money out of the market, only to potentially hurt their future earnings.

The subject matter in this communication is educational only and provided with the understanding that Principal® is not rendering legal, accounting, investment advice or tax advice. You should consult with appropriate counsel or other advisors on all matters pertaining to legal, tax, investment