Here's a Fun Little Dudefight About Whether Covid-19 Is Actually All That Bad

Two anchors of CNBC’s Squawk Box lived up to the “squawk” part of their moniker Wednesday morning thanks to a shouting match about covid-19 and its impact on stocks. Despite the rising covid-19 death toll and 38.6 million unemployed Americans, the market is enjoying a three-month high after a sharp decline, news that prompted a testy back and forth between hosts Andrew Ross Sorkin and Joe Kernen.

The nearly two-minute-long shouting match began when Kernen suggested that the government response to the covid-19 pandemic, which has infected over 5.6 million people worldwide and has left over 100,000 dead in the United States, was panicked and premature. He referenced the stock market’s recent rebound to conclude that the world and his colleague, Sorkin, largely overreacted to the virus. Sorkin, in return, implied that Kernen was operating with myopic investors—and President Trump—who have fretted over stocks more than American lives.


“You panicked about the market, panicked about covid, panicked about the ventilators, you panicked about the PPE, you panicked about ever going out again…” Kernen said.

“And Joseph, you didn’t panic about anything,” Sorkin said. “Joseph, one hundred thousand people are dead. One hundred thousand people died, Joe, and all you did was try to help your friend the president, that’s what you did. Every single morning on this show! Every single morning on this show you used and abused your position, Joe! You used and abused your position!


“That’s totally unfair,” Kernen said. “I’m trying to help investors keep their cool, keep their heads. And as it turned out, that’s what they should have done.”

“You know what, Joseph? Do the news.”

“If they had listened to you, Andrew—”

“I wasn’t arguing to go sell your stocks, Joseph! I was arguing about people’s lives! That’s the argument.”

The pair went back and forth, with Sorkin pointing out the immediacy of the human cost of the pandemic, while Kernen’s evaluation of the pandemic’s global economic and emotional toll could be summed up as “shit happens.”

Sorkin “begged” Kernen to move on to a news segment, which only resulted in more shouting.


Kernen got the last word, insisting that the United States is on the low end of per capita deaths, and that the covid-19 panic “didn’t help any investors, at all.”

“It’s terrible that we lost one hundred thousand lives, it’s terrible,” Kernen said, not sounding particularly broken up at all. “But, it was never going to be—that we weren’t going to come back, that we weren’t going to return to normal.”


Perhaps normalcy is in reach for investors glued to CNBC and can actually parse through the complex world of stocks and bonds, but for millions of average Americans, normal is far off, and the renewed strength of the Dow Jones Industrial Average doesn’t change a thing.


The Ron Swanson of Westeros

Yeah, I’m going to have to say that, on his own terms, Kernan is simply incorrect. The stock market is doing well not so much because COVID-19 isn’t a crisis (it very much is), but because there’s no other good places for investors to sink their money into at the moment. Interest rates on bonds are near zero, nobody’s buying or selling real estate, and the people who buy gold buy gold no matter what the economic environment, because they’re nuttier than a fruit bar.

Even as a matter of economic fundamentals, however, most analysts think the stock market is simply a lagging indicator on the recession. Even in the Great Recession, the market didn’t really tumble until the Bush administration failed to shore up the financial sector and Bear Sterns went down. Which won’t happen until at least 2021; the Republicans are not quite stupid enough to own-goal themselves with the financial market immediately prior to an election again.

But, the really right answer is that, dude, what is the worst that can happen if you “panic the markets” for a day about the pandemic? Some people lose betting money for a week until the market recovers? The majority of stocks are owned by the Top 10% of owners of wealth, who aren’t exactly hurting anyway if their portfolios lose some value over the short or medium-term. By contrast, the “worst that can happen” if you underplay a pandemic, is that thousands of people die. Some perspective is in order here.