Worldwide, 2020 was unequivocally dreadful; a year of loss, pain, anxiety and separation that found no worthy adversary in technology or social privilege.
The Australian bond market (as measured by the Bloomberg AusBond Composite 0+ Yr Index) returned -0.27% over the month. The yield curve steepened as 3-year government bond yields ended the month flat at 0.11%, while 10-year government bond yields rose by 7 basis points (bps) to 0.97%. Short-term bank bill rates were largely unchanged.
The S&P/ASX 200 Accumulation Index returned 1.2% during the month. Australian equities lagged key offshore markets during the month. Despite COVID-19 cases rising exponentially in the US and Europe, the start of the vaccine roll-out and further certainty regarding the US election result saw equities move higher.
2020 will undoubtedly be remembered as the year of the pandemic. While in financial market terms it is now tempting to think of COVID-19 as old news, the virus still presents substantial risks to the economic outlook.
Asian stocks turned in solid gains in December, buoyed by optimism about a vaccine-led global economic rebound, fresh US fiscal stimulus and robust economic data from China. The MSCI AC Asia ex Japan Index rose 6.8% in US dollar (USD) terms over the month.
The US Treasury (UST) yield curve steepened slightly in December. The UST 10-year bond yield rose 7.5 basis points (bps) to 0.915%, while the 2-year bond yield fell by 2.7 bps to 0.122%. Concerns in the month revolved around rising COVID-19 cases in Europe, particularly in the UK, and over the uncertainty of fiscal stimulus in the US.
We look into the potential economic impact of Japan’s attempt to become carbon neutral. We also analyse why Japan’s fiscal condition draws little attention although the country is on course to spend a record amount in its upcoming budget.
US capitalism was built on large societal divisions, but sometimes such becomes intolerable and the majority of the population revolts. In this case, the virus accentuated the income divide and engendered even greater angst. However, during the past four years, the majority fought back in different ways and ended up fighting each other, while the wealthy prospered more than ever, with high-skill workers reaping gains while lower-skill workers struggled and were often displaced, especially after the virus.
As European Commission President Ursla von der Leyen announced the free trade agreement with the UK and the EU, she quoted T.S. Eliot: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” Well, with the end of 2020 we certainly have a new year to look forward to, but it feels we are more like in the middle of this unsettled time than at an end.
Despite the devastating human and economic toll caused by the COVID-19 pandemic across the globe, and in many emerging economies in particular, emerging market debt investors were rewarded with positive returns in 2020, with local currency, external sovereign and corporate bond indices posting returns in excess of 2.5%, 5% and 7%, respectively.
The last 12 months have seen a significant rotation of topics discussed at investment meetings worldwide. The agenda has moved from macroeconomic data to infection rates, hospitalization rates, vaccinations and other issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We can head into 2021 with New Zealand the envy of many. But it remains to be seen how long this euphoria will last. Agriculture and horticulture are both promising, and the technology sector has been touted as the next big thing, but without a new major driver of growth, there’s no guarantee that our economic reality will match our ambition. Leveraging New Zealand’s exposure to fast growing economies such as China remains an important economic recovery strategy. But our greatest hope for emerging successfully from this period of wider “confidence slump” is that the low and plentiful cash stimulates risk taking and stimulates the economy, propelling New Zealand into its next phase of prosperity.
We continue to spend the vast majority of our time on company research and there are doubtless other observers better placed to predict which path that the market will go down, but it seems more likely to us that the future will look much like the pre-COVID-19 recent past. For instance, central banks have become increasingly politicised in recent years. At the same time, many national governments are more indebted than ever, having rushed through huge wage support programmes—designed to postpone a severe economic reckoning as a result of the lockdowns that they imposed.
We believe 2021 will be remembered as a year that marked the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 crisis as the world develops vaccines to counter the pandemic. In Japan, we expect a gradual recovery of its economy in 2021, as the pandemic’s impact lessens, and economic activity normalises.
The year 2020 is one most would like to forget, but for markets, performance was particularly strong despite the substantial COVID-19-related economic fallout. Certainly, ample liquidity in the form of massive monetary and fiscal stimulus was a key driver of performance, but near-term optimism may also be warranted. The vaccine rollout could return demand to more normal levels in 2021 and potentially beyond, given the pent-up demand on the back of still-massive amounts of liquidity sloshing through the system.
Following the negative performance of 2020, we believe 2021 could see better returns and a recovery for Singapore equities. We believe equity returns will remain supported by the re-opening of the Singapore economy and expect an improved market performance in 2021. With the backdrop of fewer global trade conflicts, accelerating exports, accommodative policy, higher return on equity and low foreign ownership, we expect the outlook for 2021 earnings to improve and that should support better market returns.
Despite the pandemic, markets in China were resilient and we believe that they will continue to reach new highs in 2021. Structural factors that drove the Chinese markets in 2019 and 2020 remain intact and strong leadership enabled the Chinese markets to be among the best performing (if not the best performing) markets in the world. In addition to the structural factors that we have highlighted repeatedly over the past few years, such as import substitution trends, high value-added manufacturing and deep penetration and consumption of e-commerce, new structural factors have started to emerge that stoke our optimism towards the Chinese markets.
We expect North Asia to continue to lead the region’s recovery (at least in the first half of the year). But we also expect the growth divergence between North Asia and the rest of the region to narrow. Unprecedented fiscal support from governments have been pivotal to the ongoing recovery. We expect fiscal action to continue in the coming year but anticipate renewed private sector confidence as the vaccine becomes broadly available and provides a powerful tailwind to regional growth.
Asian countries have, by and large, handled the COVID-19 pandemic better than their western counterparts and are now emerging from that nadir. Most of these countries have plenty of fiscal and/or monetary stimulus headroom. And this superior growth and better national finances are available at a significant discount to developed markets. A languid US dollar will enhance local currency returns in these “risk assets”.
We expect Asian credit spreads will tighten gradually over the coming months, supported by a solid rebound in gross domestic product (GDP) growth for most Asian economies in 2021 and stable to slightly better corporate credit fundamentals.