The global recovery continued to build momentum during the second quarter, driven by developed markets, where vaccine rollout is proving to be decisive in lifting pandemic restrictions.
Confidence in economic recovery continued to mount in May, with most data and forward indicators pointing to a period of exceptional growth underway. Confirmation from data releases and empirical evidence that this is being accompanied by a sharp rise in inflation caused some investor nervousness during the month, but dovish signals from the Federal Reserve assuaged those concerns and underpinned a continuation of the reflation trade in markets while, somewhat surprisingly, holding bond yields in check.
The pandemic continued to dominate discourse in April as case numbers globally reached record daily levels, but the impact became increasingly differentiated between the developed world, where the vaccine roll-out is bringing herd immunity and the end of lockdowns and movement restrictions into sight, and developing nations, notably India and Brazil, where second waves have spread rapidly with devastating effect and vaccine roll-out is trailing badly. However, the global dominance in both GDP and stock market capitalisation of the developed world together with China, which was the earliest economy to rebound from the pandemic, has underpinned growing confidence in recovery and the prospects for equity markets. The US and global equity market indices reached new all-time highs in April, with the S&P 500 up 5.3% and MSCI World +4.7%. Emerging markets were more constrained by the pandemic news, and by further evidence of China’s widening clampdown on its internet giants as both Tencent and Meituan were hit with anti-trust investigations following a similar move on Alibaba. The MSCI Emerging Markets index returned 2.5% in the month, with China +1.4%.
While the vaccine news in early November was arguably the critical turning point in this cycle, providing light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, it was only in the first quarter of 2021, 12 months from the pandemic’s onset, that investors began to price in the recovery ahead and a return to post-pandemic normality. The recovery and reflation trade took hold, manifest most clearly in sharp falls in bond markets, suffering one of their worst quarterly returns in decades, and in a big rotation in equity markets, from the pandemic winners, in e-commerce, the digital and online world, to those sectors which have suffered most from lockdowns and restricted mobility. Over the quarter, global equities returned 4.9%, but within that, the sectors most sensitive to economic recovery produced substantial returns, including energy +22% and banks +19%, while those which had benefitted from the pandemic, such as IT, healthcare and consumer staples, were flat.
One year ago coronavirus began to ravage the global economy and stock markets. The ensuing recession was the worst since the Great Depression, yet over those 12 months global equities have returned almost 30%, despite a 35% decline in the initial few weeks of the pandemic. Emergency policy support on an unprecedented scale underpinned markets, more recently turbo-charged by the extraordinary success of the vaccine development and roll-out programme. The narrative has moved to the scale of the economic recovery ahead and its implications for inflation: the reflation trade has been gathering pace and came to dominate markets in February.
The surge in markets in late 2020, triggered by the positive vaccine news, Biden’s success in the US election and the favourable settling of the UK-EU trade negotiations, continued into the new year. Equity markets made a strong start while government bond yields rose. However, optimism waned as January wore on, concerns rising about Covid mutations, the pace of vaccine roll-out, especially in the EU, and the economic damage caused by tightened and extended lockdowns across many parts of the world, most notably Europe. By month end, expectations for a sharp economic recovery had been pushed out to later in 2021. Sentiment was also impacted by the bizarre antics of retail traders in the US driving heavily shorted stocks to nonsensical heights in an attempt to inflict damage on hedge funds, an investment tactic that could only lead to misery for many of those involved.
The world economy has entered its sharpest and deepest recession since the Great Depression almost 100 years ago, yet equities are in the midst of a raging bull market. By the end of May, global equities, as measured by the MSCI World index, had returned 35% from the market bottom on 23rd March, an exact mirror of the 35% decline between the bull market peak on 19th February and the March 23rd low. The pace of both the decline and subsequent recovery, including a further gain of almost 5% in developed world equity markets in May, is without precedent.
Three months ago, investors were looking forward to an improved year of global growth and corporate earnings. That was then. The coronavirus crisis is an era defining event; life before coronavirus and life afterwards. Above all it is a humanitarian crisis on an epic scale, the speed of its destruction amply illustrated by its spread: on February 29th there were 85,000 confirmed cases across 58 countries, with 2,924 deaths, by 6th April there were 1.25m cases and over 69,000 deaths as the pandemic reached 207 countries.
After a period of remission verging on complacency, markets were dramatically infected by coronavirus in the final week of February, with the sharpest weekly fall in equities since the financial crisis. The trigger was the realisation that the spread of the virus beyond China, and in particular into Europe, was not only inevitable but immediate, with Italy’s economic
heartland suffering an extremely serious outbreak which is still in its early stages. Taking a line from the damage caused to China’s economy, investors began to discount a very sharp contraction in economic activity in Europe, and globally, as the virus continues its inevitable spread, now in 86 countries and rising. The impact on economies is immediate, with factories closed, supply chains interrupted, travel and leisure activities curtailed, services withdrawn and large parts of the worst affected countries, China, Italy, South Korea and Iran (and the expectation of many more to follow), in effective lockdown.
Markets started 2020 in much the same way that they ended 2019, with investors buoyed by the expectation of ultra loose monetary policy for a long time ahead, diminished risks from trade wars and Brexit, and the prospect of a recovery from 2019’s growth slowdown as manufacturing showed signs of recovering from the slump of the past 18 months. The sharp escalation in the US-Iran feud in early January led to a surge in gold and oil prices but fears of a more widespread and deeper escalation of hostilities quickly dissipated. By mid month global equities had added 2.5% to the strong returns of 2019.