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Takeaways from our 2021 investment outlook: Legacy of the lockdowns

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BNP Paribas Asset Management
 

In our outlook, we seek to help investors navigate the next phases of the pandemic, its legacy, and the ensuing economic recovery. We also consider how solutions to the climate crisis can be found at the same time as the world tackles the social and economic problems laid bare by the pandemic.

Here we summarise the big picture for investors at the end of 2020. This constitutes the starting point for our 2021 investment outlook.

  • Since the 2008 global financial crisis, the global economy has been mired in anaemic growth and weak demand, tempered by consistently rising asset prices.
  • In 2020 the global economy faced a crisis of unprecedented magnitude (see Exhibit 1 below) after the pandemic lockdowns. After a contraction of 4.4% in 2020 the IMF forecasts global growth of 5.4% in 2021. Overall, this would leave 2021 GDP some 6.5% lower than in the pre-COVID-19 projections of January 2020. The adverse impact on low-income households is particularly acute, imperilling the significant progress made in reducing extreme poverty over the last 30 years. Countering inequality is a key challenge to be met in 2021 and beyond.

Exhibit 1: Largest decline since WWII – graph shows change in world gross domestic product (inflation-adjusted, in %)

exibit 1_ENG

Source: BNP Paribas Asset Management, as of 26/11/2020

  • Under the best-case scenario, one or more vaccines for COVID-19 become widely available by the second half of 2021. Otherwise, the disease remains a longer-term threat requiring us to ‘live with’ the virus – repeated lockdowns will not be a sustainable long-term strategy.
  • In 2020, advanced economies loosened the monetary and fiscal reins most spectacularly. Debt-to-GDP ratios soared, rising for many countries by more than they did in the years after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Major central banks have largely financed the increase in budget deficits, monetising an expanding national debt, much as Japan has done.
  • One way to understand the weakness in aggregate economic demand is to study real interest rates (the ‘price’ of money in the economy). In 2006, the real yield of the 10-year inflation-protected US Treasury bond was between 2% and 3%. Since 2010, its yield has mostly been below 1%, including a spell in negative territory both in 2012 and again in 2020. Negative real yields are now common to the G3 economies (see Exhibit 2 below) and beyond. In 60% of the global economy — including 97% of advanced economies — central banks have pushed policy interest rates to below 1%. In one-fifth of the world, policy rates are negative.

Exhibit 2: Real yields are now negative for G3 sovereign debt – graph shows changes in real yields for US, Japanese and eurozone government debt between 1997 and 16/11/2020.

exibit 2_ENG

Source: BNP Paribas Asset Management, as of 26/11/2020

  • In 2020, these meagre interest rates, along with cheap, low-risk liquidity from central banks, led asset prices higher. Risk premia for risky assets shrank. Companies whose revenues have plummeted — cruise lines, airlines, cinemas — were able to borrow money in 2020 to survive. Investors had few higher-yield options. Will central banks continue to supply such liquidity in 2021?
  • And how is all this debt to be paid for? The appropriate historical parallel is perhaps the post-World War II period, when central banks capped bond yields at levels well below the trend GDP growth rate to gradually reduce the national debt as a proportion of GDP.
  • Alternatively, instead of financial repression and inflation (as post WW2), the extraordinarily low real interest rates we have seen over the past decade could help achieve fiscal sustainability. It would, however, be imprudent to count on it. No policymaker should expect real interest rates to remain persistently below the growth rate of real GDP. Indeed, forecast imbalances in planned global savings and investment could drive real interest rates higher (ageing societies save a lot, but old societies do not).
  • Another risk is that improved real trend growth does not come to the rescue. Lower global growth after the pandemic accompanied by inadequate fiscal stimulus would leave marginal sections of the economy vulnerable to collapse. Such an outcome would test the paradigm of modest growth, low inflation and supportive central bank policy that has supported asset prices since 2008.

Today we face three interconnected crises – health, economic and climate. The instability provoked by the pandemic presents a window of opportunity to pivot in a new direction. Long-term environmental viability, equality and inclusive growth are essential pre-conditions to a sustainable economy. By taking a holistic, systemic, long-term view, we are less likely to be surprised by crises and better able to manage them.

For in-depth insights into what’s next for the global economy and markets, ‘read our 2021 investment outlook, Legacy of the lockdowns’

Read our comprehesive outlook pdf here

investment outlook 2021

Any views expressed here are those of the author as of the date of publication, are based on available information, and are subject to change without notice. Individual portfolio management teams may hold different views and may take different investment decisions for different clients. The views expressed in this podcast do not in any way constitute investment advice.

The value of investments and the income they generate may go down as well as up and it is possible that investors will not recover their initial outlay. Past performance is no guarantee for future returns.

Investing in emerging markets, or specialised or restricted sectors is likely to be subject to a higher-than-average volatility due to a high degree of concentration, greater uncertainty because less information is available, there is less liquidity or due to greater sensitivity to changes in market conditions (social, political and economic conditions).

Some emerging markets offer less security than the majority of international developed markets. For this reason, services for portfolio transactions, liquidation and conservation on behalf of funds invested in emerging markets may carry greater risk.

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