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The Market Is Trying to Put a Price on the Coronavirus Outbreak

Analysts are looking to the 2003 SARS epidemic for lessons, but this time may be different.

The departure lobby of Beijing Capital International Airport.

The departure lobby of Beijing Capital International Airport.

Photographer: The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP Images

Past performance, money managers warn us in countless marketing documents, is no guarantee of future results. Yet when a threat emerges to the value of investment portfolios, Wall Street’s market pundits rush to find an analogous past event.

So as the number of patients with the coronavirus swiftly grew into the thousands over the past week in China, analysts’ time machines landed back in 2003. That was the year that severe acute respiratory syndrome spread from China to the rest of the world, eventually infecting about 8,100 people and causing 774 fatalities. The cold takeaway for Wall Street? That turned out to be a great year for stocks. Despite some turbulence caused by SARS, the S&P 500 rallied 26% and the MSCI China Index surged 81% that year.