Markets: Going from orange to green?

The year 2020 will be remembered as the year when the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic swept across the world, taking the lives of many. This human tragedy was accompanied by an economic crisis as global economies shut down in an attempt to slow down the spread of the disease. And finally, politicians in the developed world also kept financial markets on edge as an acrimonious United States (US) election and the finalisation of the Brexit deal both went down to the wire. For investors thinking long term becomes all the more difficult when one is contemplating whether a hazmat suit is the only protection against a deadly virus.

Global markets

The global lockdown and halt to economic activity in the first half of 2020 was like a cardiac arrest that floored all economies across the globe. Central banks unleashed unprecedented swift actions with a combination of aggressive monetary expansion and fiscal stimulus. Governments across the world tried their best to provide financial support to businesses and individuals, who saw their means of earning a living crushed unexpectedly. Interest rates globally were pushed to the zero bound as central bankers aggressively cut rates and flooded capital markets with liquidity. The ploy was straight from the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) playbook – but on steroids, as the largest central banks globally did in a quarter four-fold more quantitative easing than during the whole GFC. And we are not done, with the new Biden administration in the United States (US) planning over $2 trillion in stimulus with 80% of Americans likely to receive a stimulus cheque – an eye-popping number given that less than 20% do not work.

The bond market rally was followed by an equity market rebound. First, beneficiaries of the work from home trend led the rally. But in the second half of the year, as economies re-opened, a broader based rally ensued. With cheap money available, new participants joined the buying frenzy on a number of online apps – the so-called Robinhood effect. The amateurs jumped on the momentum bandwagon gobbling up bitcoin and Tesla, racking astounding gains that are up over 600% since March 2020. These gains continued at the start of 2021 with Elon Musk briefly overtaking Jeff Bezos as the wealthiest man on earth.

The fourth quarter benefited from the additional fillip from the discovery of vaccines, which added to the re-opening trade. The S&P broke its record levels 33 times last year and the rally saw it rebound almost 70% from March lows. The West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil price, which had turned negative earlier in the year, passed the more respectable $50/barrel mark. Pharma stocks also attracted much interest, with Moderna up over 200%. Globally, earnings declined by some 15% and valuation multiples expanded – but as we know markets wrote off 2020 and fixated on a more promising 2021.

Outing Agent Orange

In the US, a blue sweep was a low probability outcome by most political commentators. While a Democratic win was seen as underpinning a much stronger fiscal response, this raised concerns about the impact of more aggressive fiscal action on the inflation. The US 10-year yields spiked from record lows to end the year over 1% as inflation expectations also climbed. However, markets quickly shrugged off the impact of a contested election outcome even as President Donald Trump was making various erroneous claims about voting irregularities. Just as the Democrats were about to cement their control of the Senate after winning both seats in Georgia in January, Trump supporters stormed the Capitol – something unimaginable for a country born out of democratic principles.

After internet giants shut down President Trump and his acolytes who had instigated the riots, there have been many discussions about the role of social media in allowing “alternative truths” to take hold in society. The Make America Great Again campaign by President Trump had become a proxy for a brand of nationalism and isolationism that was openly anti free-trade and anti-immigration. It also exploited the resentment caused by growing income inequality.

Local headwinds

In South Africa (SA) the hard lockdown in April 2020 severely impacted the economy, which had been moribund for years. The R500 billion stimulus package (10% of GDP) failed to live up to expectations. The R200 billion loan support for small business was hardly drawn down and corruption took a bite out of some of the initiatives meant to combat the virus. Relative to the rest of the world, South Africa remains in a growth trap with constrained fiscal muscle but attractive real yields.

It should therefore not be a surprise that the South African bonds outperformed in 2020, positing very decent returns of 8.6%, while the All Share made a strong comeback in the second half of the year to close the year up 7%. Despite being up some 21% in the final quarter, property stocks lagged and were down 34% last year. Resources stocks remained the best performers for the year, up over 21% driven by strong commodity prices, with iron ore prices up an astonishing 77%, as Chinese demand rebounded, and supply remained constrained. Globally, the picture looks different with equities leading the way, up 22% in rand terms, while bonds were up 9% in rand terms in large part due to a weaker rand.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also been exacerbated by the fact that lower income groups have been more vulnerable to the disease and suffered much economic hardship in the form of job losses.

Sustainable investing

The Coronavirus is just another example of a pathogen that has been transmitted from animals to humans, with human encroachment into animals’ natural habitats also increasing the likelihood of such outbreaks. In addition, global warming has led to the migration of 70% of the globe’s animal species to cooler climates. The crisis has reinforced the fact that sustainable investing requires us to question the impact that companies have on the environment and on society.

Internet companies have also come under the spotlight for their role in spreading fake news. Disinformation has now become common with some high-profile political campaigns, such as  to Brexit or Trump’s election campaigns, being underpinned by such disinformation. Another example are the efforts to roll-out COVID-19 vaccines constantly being undermined by conspiracy theories.

Where to from here?

As the vaccine gets rolled out during the course of 2021, the human toll of the virus should stabilise and this should assist with the re-opening of economies around the globe, and excess savings accumulated during the crisis will be put to work. Markets have already anticipated this, and valuations have discounted some of the good news. Global equities trade on a Forward PE of 21 times compared to a long-term average of 18 times – which shows that the earnings rebound expected in 2021 has largely been discounted.

In South Africa, the bifurcation between global cyclical stocks compared to locally focused companies has been a big feature of the past year. On a relative basis, SA equity valuations are looking more attractive relative to global equities given the earnings and dividend rebound that we are expecting this coming year, with a more stable rand also helping. South African bonds also show good value, but it is now a closer call between government bonds and equities with cash being unattractive. We remain wary of businesses that have rallied hard but have yet to repair their balance sheets, especially in the local listed property space. The case for offshore diversification remains, with the rand now being close to fair value against the dollar. Offshore equities are the preferred asset class with emerging markets, more specifically Asia, offering good value with accommodative monetary and fiscal policy action supporting asset prices, while developed market bonds are our least preferred asset class given negative real yields.