The Monthly View – January 2021

Welcome to a New Year!

Twelve months after the first reports of a new virus started to show up and ten months after the start of a global pandemic, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna seem to have efficacy rates of around 95%. AstraZeneca’s vaccine, developed together with Oxford University, has shown an efficacy rate of 90%. Russia and China have also launched vaccines. The Russian vaccine, Gamaleya, displayed an efficacy rate of 91% based on 22,000 test participants. Such high efficacy rates are on par with the measles and smallpox vaccines, and well above the typical 30%-to-50% success rate for the seasonal flu vaccine.

If we combine the global roll-out of the vaccines with the typical cycle of previous viral pandemics, we could very well see a sharp drop in new Covid cases in the coming months. When effective vaccines allow everyone to live a normal life again, there will be a burst of economic activity of every kind. When this happens, it will unlock tremendous pent-up demand around the world. There will be party booms, travel booms, shopping malls will be filled with people and airports will be busy again.

The Covid-19 crisis is a natural disaster and historically, the impact of this kind of crisis on the economy and society is always “temporary”. This time is no different. The speed of the economic rebound since April has been fast and surprised many investors. Retail sales in the U.S. and Europe have not only clawed back all their lost ground but have made new highs.

Another reason for a recovery boom is that, although the Covid-19 crisis is a temporary shock, it has caused structural shifts in policy. This will make the recovery story very different from the post-2009 recovery. Back then, the world economy was plagued by a badly damaged banking system in the West, prolonged deleveraging, and a crash in Chinese investment spending. This led to a long period of low growth, sustained deflationary threat and a secular bear market in commodities.

A Roaring 2020s?

The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic gave way to the roaring 1920s, business boomed, stocks roared ahead, and the world economy experienced unprecedented prosperity. Is there a chance that we will see a repeat with a roaring 2020s?

This is certainly possible as all the economic and monetary stimulus most likely has extended the economic cycle and the secular bull market by another few years.

The path is already well greased with liquidity, and the current economic backdrop bears some similarities to the 1920s. Back then, there were many game-changing new technologies and innovations such as electricity, the automobile, the telephone, radio, consumer appliances, assembly-line production and so on. These new developments played major roles in driving down inflation and stimulating growth, which led to rising profits and stock prices until it abruptly ended in 1929.

Today, corporate profits are recovering strongly from the recession last year and stocks are trading at a forward Price/Earnings Ratio (P/E) of 22, which is not low but also not overly expensive by historical standards, especially taking into account the much lower interest rates. This is not to mention the many important technological advances in recent decades.

Obviously, there are key differences between the 1920s and now. More than a century ago, Americans were younger, and the economy was more vibrant and growing faster. Today, the population is getting older, the economy invests a lot less and growth is much slower. However, these differences are not the reasons preventing a financial mania. There are already areas of speculation, but we must differentiate between pockets of speculation like stocks of electric car makers or bitcoin, and the general market. We are nowhere near a general financial mania yet.

If we get a roaring 2020s, when and how could it end?

We could see an extended bull market in risk assets until we see the next financial recession, which could be triggered by monetary tightening. Almost all previous asset bubbles were pricked by monetary tightening. If the Fed is serious about its forward guidance, rates are likely to stay low for a few years, which is the key reason why the market could run up a lot further and could lead to asset bubbles and financial manias this decade.

But be careful: policymakers can change their minds quickly and the risk to equity prices will escalate when the Fed is preparing to “normalize” policy again. However, this likely still several years down the road.

The world economy is recovering fast but governments and central banks are still worried about a “double dip” for the economy given the continued lockdowns and they will continue approving large economic stimulus packages. The U.S. has just agreed another fiscal package of around $900 billion, while the EU will push through its own €750 billion recovery fund.

Politically, the right thing to do is to give more money to the most affected people, but for the U.S. economy as whole, additional income subsidy might not be necessary to sustain the recovery. A large part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) expired at the end of July but the unemployment rate has continued to fall and the economy has continued to improve. Additional fiscal support in the U.S. or Europe will simply add more fuel to the potential spending recovery.

The Democratic wins in the Georgia senate races will also give the Biden-Harris administration more leeway to get larger economic stimulus packages through congress and investors do not need to fear a premature tightening of fiscal policy in the U.S.

Several European countries will hold elections this year or early 2022, which means politicians have very little incentive to stop the economic stimulus any time soon.

Fiscal policy around the world has been so far focused on giving out income support for people, but the emphasis could shift to rebuilding the economy. As such, infrastructure spending could be increased significantly from the U.S. to Europe to Asia, fuelling a surge in construction activity. This could be good news for commodity prices. And indirectly emerging markets.

Our overall view is therefore that the global economy will strengthen in 2021 as the pandemic winds down. Inflation will remain low for the next 2-to-3 years before possibly moving higher by the middle of the decade.

Interest rates will stay low as long as there is no real inflation threat and this is positive for equity markets. Right now, stocks are technically overbought and vulnerable to a short-term correction. Nevertheless, investors should continue to favour equities over bonds in 2021 given the likelihood that earnings will accelerate while monetary policy stays accommodative. If social instability in the U.S. would affect the markets in the short-term we would be buying the dip rather than selling.

Given the strong divergence in markets last year with large cap tech stocks accounting for most of the gains, it is not unlikely that we will see some mean-reversion this year and last year’s losers could be this year’s winners.

In 2021, international stocks could outperform US stocks, small caps can outperform large caps and banks and industrial companies can catch up to large cap tech. A weaker dollar will also help to make international markets more attractive.

Bond yields could rise modestly this year on the back of an improving economy, but the move is unlikely to be very large as central banks will want to avoid the situation that fast rising bond yields would hurt the recovering economy.

Corporate bonds, private credit and emerging market government bonds, including Chinese government bonds remain our preferred sectors of the markets. Given the rise in inflation expectations (which is not the same as inflation), inflation-protected securities remain attractive as well.

The US dollar will likely continue to weaken in 2021. The collapse in US interest rate differentials versus its trading partners, stronger global growth, and a widening US trade deficit are all bearish for the dollar.

Tight supply conditions and a cyclical recovery in demand for oil and metals will support commodity prices. Investors should consider adding 5% to 10% of commodity exposure as part of a globally diversified portfolio. We believe that both base commodities and precious metals will continue to move higher because of the combination of a strengthening economy combined with stimulative monetary policy.

Within a basket of commodities, we also include Bitcoin as we consider it a ‘digital commodity’ rather than a payment currency. This has obviously worked very well in the past quarter. Although we believe in the future of digital assets, we currently favour gold and silver over bitcoin as a hedge against long-term inflation risk given the recent parabolic run-up in the Bitcoin price.

Positive Risk In 2021

There is a ‘risk’ that stocks rise much more than investor can imagine and mega-cap growth stocks continue to lead the way. A liquidity tsunami is still in the making and major central banks except China are working in overdrive to print money and monetize debt. Next year, Quantitative Easing (Q.E.) will likely be significantly enlarged.

The U.S. Treasury will likely issue $2.4 trillion in new debt, and a large part of the new issuance will be absorbed by the Federal Reserve. This means that the Fed’s balance sheet will continue to grow, particularly if they try to keep bond yields down.

All this newly created money will not create inflation in the short-term, but it will flow into stocks, real estate and anything that has some yield, or into momentum plays like bitcoin.

In the meantime, there are captivating growth stories in the technology, biotech and clean energy space, which could easily capture investors’ imagination and generate more inflows into these sectors.

The price pattern of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google (FAANGs) is very similar to the financial mania in technology, media and telecom in the 1990s. These mega-cap names are natural hot spots for investors to deploy large amounts of liquid capital. At the height of the last technology bubble, the average annual return for the S&P500 was 30% from 1996 to 1999.

Geopolitical Risks

Beijing has been the key source of negative shocks to risk assets in recent years. Policymakers in China are fixated on their Debt-Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ratio and have taken every opportunity of the economic recovery to hammer. Next to that China has taken a firmer stand regarding Taiwan and the South China sea and this has the potential to lead to conflicts.

The announcement from Iran that they will start to enrich more uranium will increase tension not only with the U.S. but also Europe.  The recent seizure of a South Korean tanker could be the start of more tensions in the Middle East.

Geopolitical risks could lead to sharp corrections in equity markets but are unlikely to unsettle the underlying economic trends.

Emerging Markets Transition To a Structural Bull Market

The current macro environment surrounding emerging market assets shares some similarities to what happened after the U.S. tech bubble bust two decades ago. Emerging market assets were battered by multiple crises in the 1990s and became deeply undervalued and under-owned. The Fed eased aggressively to fight the deflationary shock, which pushed down the dollar and released massive liquidity into the global financial system. This, together with strong Chinese growth, created a spectacular bull market in emerging market that lasted until after the Global Financial Crisis in 2008.

While history never repeats itself and it is overly simplistic to draw historical parallels, financial markets are subject to long-term mean reversion. The fact that emerging market  equities have underperformed developed markets by so much in the past decade and are trading at much more lower multiples holds the promise of higher returns over the long run.

In addition, a few important factors suggest that the cyclical emerging market bull market has the potential to develop into a multi-year structural one.

First, the ongoing rally in commodity prices likely reflects more than just the Fed easing and a weaker dollar. Rather, it could be a sign of a demand-supply mismatch. On the demand side, China is full-throttle supporting the development of the country’s booming new energy vehicles (NEVs) industry, aiming to double its market share in auto sales in five years, which requires aggressive investment in related infrastructure. The country is also pushing development of “new infrastructure” such as 5G stations, high-voltage power grids, intra-city rail transit and data centers, all of which are commodity intensive undertakings.

In addition, China’s “belt and road initiative” has suffered a setback due to U.S.-China tensions and the pandemic but will inevitably continue to gain momentum in the coming years. The belt and road initiative is essentially a series of basic transportation infrastructure projects in developing countries financed by Chinese institutions.

Meanwhile, the U.S. under a Biden presidency will also likely push on infrastructure development, setting the stage for stronger demand for commodities.

On the supply side, a decade-long bear market in commodity prices has significantly reduced capital spending in mining.

Investment in infrastructure and clean energy technology is a trend that will continue in the coming years.

Portfolios

Our portfolios are globally diversified with a strong tilt to sustainable investments, which continue to do well. In October we added back some value stock exposure and a global Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) Exchange Traded Fund (ETF), which should continue to do well in the current environment.

Clean energy technology and health innovation were among the strongest performers last year but investment in these sectors will likely continue to grow in the coming years.