It’s been a long 48 hours, but I’m almost home. I’m writing this from an airbase hangar outside of Lima, Peru, waiting to board my evacuation flight.
As you might recall, I happened to be in Peru when all hell broke loose and the government closed the airport and put the entire country under strict lockdown. I managed to get my family out of Lima and to my father-in-law’s ranch before the quarantine went into effect. And that’s where I spent the next 51 days: on a ranch outside of a little town you’ve never heard of in the middle of nowhere, Peru.
We drove eight hours on Tuesday to get back to Lima, passing through about 10 roadblocks manned by a combination of police and armed soldiers, just hoping each of them would respect my letter from the U.S. Embassy requesting safe passage. We had a few give it a long read and ask a few questions, but eventually they all waived us through.
Wednesday morning, we arrived at the U.S. embassy and took a convoy through the deserted streets of the city to a military base on the edge of town. Uniformed U.S. Marines helped us off the bus and into the hangar … where I write this waiting for my flight.
Let me tell you, it’s been a strange experience, and I have one major takeaway: The world is screwed.
Yes, I know, half of America is already starting to reopen. And let me tell you, I plan to hit the Whataburger drive-through window hard as soon as I get back to Dallas. But the quarantines were never all that strict in America.
For crying out loud, my friends in Dallas have enjoyed carry-out margaritas from the local Mexican restaurant for the past six weeks. That’s not a quarantine. It’s a vacation. In Peru, there was nothing open but the grocery store and pharmacy, and even these had limited hours.
Economies in Distress
All the same, even with the comparatively lax quarantines stateside, the U.S. economy has gotten its head bashed in. An estimated 30 million Americans are out of work, and GDP shrank nearly 5% in the first quarter with more pain to come in the second.
If it’s that bad in a relatively lax country that also threw unprecedented support at the problem via unemployment benefits and small business loans, imagine how bad it must be in less-developed countries with nonexistent safety nets, where most of the population lives in the gray or black market.
How would you even go about getting support payments to people who live in a quasi-underground cash economy, as much of the developing world does?
On our drive back to Lima from the countryside, we saw hundreds of people walking along the Panamerican Highway. Many were carrying babies or pushing strollers. Keep in mind, Peru’s coast is a sparsely populated desert where you can easily go 50 miles between towns. They were pushing strollers across that.
With the economy shut down, they were stuck in Lima with no way to support themselves and forced to walk back to whatever town they originally came from. They looked like refugees fleeing a war zone.
In my drive, I saw hundreds of these people. But if you add up their numbers worldwide, we’re likely talking about tens of millions of people. Many of them will be replaced by new migrants once the economy opens back up and starts to mend. But that doesn’t happen in a day. And in the meantime, the developing world is going to be dealing with Great Depression conditions.
There is no V-shaped recovery for most of the world. An L-shaped recovery is the best-case scenario.
I’m not a doom-and-gloomer. I’m an optimist at heart and try to find opportunities in a crisis. Who knows, if prices fall hard enough, I might be able to buy my wife a swanky Lima apartment for a song.
I’m not jumping into emerging market stocks just yet. It’s too early, and I don’t think most investors fully appreciate how damaged many of these economies are. But I’m definitely keeping an eye on them because I think this crisis might create a generational opportunity in emerging markets once the dust settles.
I’ll dig into this idea next week when I’m back at my desk and settled in.
With a Whataburger in my hand.
• Money & Markets contributor Charles Sizemore specializes in income and retirement topics, and is a frequent guest on CNBC, Bloomberg and Fox Business.
Follow Charles on Twitter @CharlesSizemore