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Macro in Minutes
A brief overview of key Global Macro Economic events Quarter 1, 2021
Investors started the year with much optimism as the confirmation of Joe Biden as the new President of the United States brought with it promise of economic reform and fiscal stimulus to help revive a slowly recovering global economy post Covid 19. True to his word the newly inaugurated president set about on construction of the world’s largest economic stimulus package, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. A key focus of the plan saw individuals across the US receive direct payments of $1,400, adding to the record high personal income levels US citizens have reached, despite the ongoing pandemic. What is perhaps most interesting about the record income levels of US citizens is that we ended the first quarter with US unemployment at 6%, still plenty of slack from the 3.5% record levels seen prior to the Coronavirus outbreak.
With increasing consumer confidence, disposable income and optimism around the rollout of Covid 19 vaccines, attention quickly turned to increasing consumer demand and pricing pressures. Whether or not the re-opening of global economies would result in an uncontrollable inflation spike was undoubtedly the key question for investors throughout the first quarter. This question and perceived risk played out throughout major asset classes across the quarter, with Government bond yields increasing (yields move inversely to price) as investors looked to preserve their expected real rate of return. The same theme played out throughout growth stocks with tech stocks in particular, whose valuations often trade on high multiples to their future expected earnings, becoming increasingly volatile throughout the quarter. This trend in particular, highlighted the importance of valuation metrics in asset selection and the potential for valuation traps or bubbles in those areas of the market where valuations have reached astronomical levels, often unsupported by reliable earnings.
As well as increasing consumer demand, questions around global supply chains amidst a global recovery added to inflationary expectations. These concerns were not helped when towards the end of the quarter a container ship, the size of four football pitches, became lodged within the Suez canal in Egypt. With trade passing through the canal at a value of approximately $10billion per day, concerns surrounding the vulnerability of global supply chains, highlighted by Covid 19, were increased.
Whilst re-opening of the world’s largest economies brought with it questions about inflation, it also brought with it optimism that people could begin to resume ordinary life, to a degree. The successful distribution of vaccines across key economies has done much to increase this optimism across the first quarter. The UK in particular operating a successful vaccine distribution programme, administering over 35,000,000 vaccine doses so far. This successful deployment offered a glimmer of hope to UK investors after years of Brexit focus and initial mishandling of the Covid 19 outbreak. This progress has led to improved first-quarter returns for domestic UK stocks and maintained the strength of sterling, against the US dollar in particular. The more risk-on approach adopted by UK investors has however caused issues for safe haven UK Gilt investors who have experienced noticeable price falls led by a combination of inflation expectations and increasing flows from bonds to equities.
Chinese Optimism and Reality Checks
Another major economy in focus at the start of the year was that of China, which after successful containment of Covid 19 had rebounded to economic growth quickly, being the only G20 economy to record growth in 2020. This alongside an improving backdrop of GDP growth expectations for 2021, improving export figures and increasing foreign direct investment saw significant inflows into Chinese equities and bonds throughout the first quarter. Whilst initial returns across Chinese equities were positive, increased volatility in Chinese based stocks set in throughout the quarter, highlighting the contrasting political dynamics of investing in China verse other developed equity markets. Following the Central Bank postponement of the Ant Group IPO in 2020, tech firms across China continued to come under regulatory scrutiny throughout the first quarter with President Xi Jinping calling for tighter controls for tech-based, platform companies. This pressure weighed heavy on tech giants Alibaba and Tencent, whilst the wider global volatility surrounding technology stocks, heightened political tensions with the USA and increasing energy prices contributed to muted first quarter returns for Chinese indices.
The Great Rotation
Towards the end of 2020 with increasing hope that the re-opening of global economies was in sight, a sector rotation across equity markets began. Whilst growth stocks, led by the technology sector, had dominated returns following the onset of Covid 19, those stocks linked to the ‘real’ economy began to outperform. Sectors such as energy, financials and industrials have continued this outperformance throughout the start of 2021 as value stocks outperformed growth stocks for the quarter, following a decade of significant underperformance. Whilst there are some obvious links between the re-opening of economies and sectors likely to benefit, investors should be wary of seeking discounted companies, attempting to achieve pre-Covid price levels. Covid 19 has undoubtedly accelerated a number of technological and social trends, so identifying those companies that are truly value and those that are the victims of disruption should be a key focus for any value investors in the current environment.
All of the above events leave investors with much information to digest and some key decisions to make moving into the second quarter of the year. For our clients, we remain focused on long term growth objectives and an investment approach that leads us to quality investments that we understand. There will continue to be many short-term investment trends ahead, as there has been throughout history. However, to differentiate between speculating and investing we urge investors to remain focused on long term growth objectives, utilising the investment principles that have successfully passed the test of time.
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