Themes to watch in 2021

We’ve conducted a review of the literature to try and answer some of the questions that have been playing on our minds. 

Market participants are extremely bullish on 2021 - 2021 is seen as a recovery year with the successful rollout of a vaccine allowing the worlds economy to return to normal pushing equity markets even further from their current record highs.  Some of the more interesting themes for us are laid out below.

The global economy will recover

Economies have recovered faster than was initially anticipated, driven by strong Government support and the extremely rapid development of vaccines. 

A number of the hard lessons from 2008 and 2009 have been learned and take on board by both Governments and Central Banks.  Stimulus measures and low interest rates have meant that in some parts of the world consumers have more disposable income than in normal times, despite the higher unemployment.  The recovery is unlikely to be evenly phased through the world, with Asia likely to lead by having the fastest economic recovery.

The economy is expected to recover back to Pre-Covid levels by the end of the year, though will still remain behind where the global economy would have been without Covid.  Interestingly, economists continue to upgrade their forecasts and continue to be surprised at the strength of the global economy.

Global GDP forecasts

World GDP v2

Source:  Worldbank

Higher government debt is the new normal

Governments expanded their balance sheets in 2020 as they looked to support their economies with stimulus measures like nothing has been seen before. 

This increase in borrowing was facilitated by Central Banks' assistance who have purchased significant amounts of Government Bonds to keep yields (and the cost of borrowing) low for both companies and Governments.

Previously held economic rules around Government debt and printing money seem to have dissapeared from both politicians and economists consciousness.

We are unlikely to see a change in Government spending in 2021 with Governments continuing to see the need to support their economies.   The OECD is forecast to run a 7% fiscal deficit in 2021. This compares to a 1% deficit recorded in 2019.  No single country is immune as every OECD country is forecast to have a deficit.

The big question on everyone's mind is what happens in the next crisis, with interest rates already close to zero (or below) and very high debt levels, will Government's have the capacity to support economies through another crisis.

Government debt as a percentage of GDP (OECD)

Government debt as a percentage of GDP OECD

The US will finally move to a greener economy

During the pandemic investment in the new climate-friendly economy proved remarkably resilient.  A record $400 billion was invested in green energy projects in 2020, and this is expected to rise further in 2021. 

A significant change which accelerated this growth was the election of Joe Biden, who pledged to make the US carbon neutral as President of the US and China’s unexpected commitment to carbon neutrality by 2060. 

In addition to the transformation of electrical grids, Tesla has led the way to EVs becoming the norm. Some countries have announced they will ban the sale of petrol-only cars from later in the decade.

Europe led the way in 2020 with the use of their stimulus package to drive a green economy, it is now Joe Biden and America's turn to show us how they can contribute to a greener and healthier climate.

Energy Source Forecasts (BP Energy Outlook)

Energy Source Forecasts BP Energy Outlook

Source:  BP Strategic Update

Don't expect a change in US / China relations

Tensions between the US and China are unlikely to abate with a Biden presidency. Diplomacy may return, entering us into a less volatile and more normal world. Though unfortunately, the US and China's tension is unlikely to go anywhere due to underlying problems with American society, and American's want someone to blame.

Over the past decade, the US has seen significant increases in inequality. The “American Dream” that all people are equal, and every person has an equal chance of success is no longer seen as possible.  Americans have seen their manufacturing jobs move offshore and cities and towns have been stuck in depression for decades.  This has all happened while China has been going through one of the greatest economic growth phases of all time and is likely to overtake the USA as the world's largest economy by 2025. 

Whilst also growing economically, China is reasserting itself globally and wants to be recognised as the military and political superpower fitting for the world's largest country and economy.  China no longer want to be subservient to the “declining” US superpower.

All of this makes China an easy avenue for anger and blame.  No matter how hard he tries, Joe Biden will be unable to change the general populations views on China and being the good politician he is, he will therefore need to retain Donald Trumps tough on China policies.

Global GDP breakdown

Global GDP breakdown

Source:  International Monetary Fund

Companies will make lots of money

Corporate earnings are expected to recover rapidly because of low-interest rates, strong economic growth and increasing market exposure to the super-profitable technology sector. All of these factors will push listed company earnings to higher levels than 2019.

As expected, the rebound in corporate earnings will be aligned to economic growth which means that Emerging Markets (who have come out of Covid in more robust shape) will have faster recoveries and higher earnings.

At times like this it is important to remember the difference between Main Street and Wall Street.  Listed companies are larger and more exposed to growth industries than the broader economy which is an important reason why their earnings will recover much faster than the economy and unemployment.

Corporate Earnings Forecast vs 2019 (2019 set at 100)

Corporate Earnings Forecast vs 2019 2019 set at 100

Source:  UBS Investment Research

Equity valuations are not actually that high

Equity valuations are currently at recent highs, the S&P 500 is currently valued at almost 23x earnings compared with a long-run average of 16x.  Though it is important to look at this in the context of interest rates, which are also at all-time lows. 

The yield earned by companies is currently at a 3.5% premium to the US treasury bonds, exactly in line with the current market average. 

You can argue that this is a discount when you look at the breakdown of the index. The S&P 500 is now made up almost 30% of tech stocks which have a significantly higher margin and return on equity than other sectors which should drive a valuation premium to some of the more traditional sectors.

Looking at the market in this context we can easily argue that the market is potentially cheap rather than being over priced as a number of people believe.

Equity Earnings Premium to 10 Year Government Bond

Equity Earnings Premium to 10 Year Government Bond

Source:  Factset

So what does all of this mean for your KiwiSaver?

At kōura, we are a passive investor; we don’t try and pick stocks or trends. And with everything that we saw in 2020 we are very happy not to have tried to pick the trends as no one succeeded! There are some important rules that the trends point out for your KiwiSaver and things to think about when building your KiwiSaver portfolio.

Asset allocation is more important than ever.

With interest rates set to remain at deficient levels for the medium term, asset allocation becomes extremely important.  The difference in forecast returns between fixed income (1-2%) and equities (5-10%) is significant. Therefore you must be only sitting in a conservative option if you really need to be.  You should only be in a Conservative/Balanced fund if you are approaching retirement or looking to purchase your first home.

Sustainable funds are likely to continue to outperform

With the shift to a green economy, sustainable funds are likely to outperform as they will be overweight new economy companies.  It isn't easy to see a for the traditional fossil fuels sector given the significant Government impetus to move to a clean energy world.

Diversification is the key.

The world is likely to become more regional with the constant struggles between the US and China, resulting in regionalisation with countries forced to take sides.  As an investor, you need to make sure you have exposure to all sides of this new global world, making sure you have a truly global portfolio rather than focusing on any specific region or country.

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