FY 2020-21 began as COVID-19 continued to rapidly spread throughout the world, severely impacting global economies. This unpredictable pandemic resulted in declining consumer spending and sentiment, culminating in the contraction of many major economies. However, by the end of the calendar year, there were signs of economic recovery following the successful development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Additionally, the election of US President Joe Biden boosted the American economy and provided certainty and hope for GDP improvement. Global easing of restrictions coupled with strong fiscal policies have helped to open up economies and increase employment rates.
Developments in the global economy
Australia had a rocky start to the financial year with increased COVID-19 infection rates causing consumer sentiment to fall to 87.9 as well as the unemployment rate to soar to 7.5% in July, its highest level since November 1998. In July, daily COVID-19 cases exceeded 700 and Victorian borders were closed with Greater Melbourne in stage-4 lockdown. With the pandemic still at its peak, the federal government announced fiscal initiatives including JobKeeper and JobSeeker would be extended until the end of March 2021.
Consumer sentiment continued to fall in August to 79.5, attributed to Victoria’s continued lockdown and the fear of a second wave in New South Wales. September saw the cash rate at 0.25%, a historic low. The S&P/ASX 300 fell -3.59% after its August increase, ending the quarter down -0.06%. Additionally, market sentiment was poor due to unfavourable mining, banking, and job data. After two negative prints of GDP growth, Australia fell into a recession for the first time in almost three decades. During September, the federal government ambitiously announced plans to have a COVID-19 vaccine rolled out by January. The record-low cash rate was maintained through to October with initial economic projections in April 2020 estimating the economy would contract 6% over the year and unemployment would reach 10% by year end. In actuality, the economy shrank 1.1% and unemployment was 6.8%, with the Australian economy outperforming predictions. However, the Australian dollar appreciated to its highest level in more than two years as the US dollar continued to depreciate.
The RBA cut the cash rate further in November to a new record low of 0.10%, also announcing additional Qualitative Easing (QE) through a $100 billion government bond buying program. This was directed at the longer end of the curve, focussing on 5–10 year maturities. November showed positive signs for employment levels, with 178,000 jobs added to the economy.
The calendar year ended with the cash rate holding at 0.10%, and annual inflation being 0.7%. The lead up to Christmas was predominantly plagued by geopolitical trade tensions with China after they enforced harsh restrictions on Australian exports such as, wine, timber, and barley. Additionally, a COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney’s northern beaches saw the entire region locked down for weeks, hampering many Christmas and New Year’s Eve travel plans. However, in positive news, consumer sentiment soared to 112, a ten-year high driven by improved economic conditions.
January saw restrictions easing in Sydney and Melbourne, but mid-month, Brisbane and Perth both lockdown in response to feared outbreaks of the deadly ‘UK Strain’. At this time, it was announced that the Pfizer vaccine had been approved for Australian use and would be rolled out from late February.
Positively, the unemployment rate fell to 6.6%, the lowest it had been since April 2020.
The corporate reporting season in February showed positive economic signs with 86% of companies still recording statutory profits for the first six months of the financial year. However, aggregate interim earnings fell by 17%, indicating that while profits were being made, top line earnings had decreased. On February 2nd, the RBA decided to keep the cash rate at 0.10%, reiterating that the cash rate would not be increasing until actual inflation is sustainable within the 2-3% range.
The unemployment rate continued to fall to 6.4% in February, however this was still 1.2% away from pre-COVID levels. February data indicated positive signs of economic recovery with domestic GDP advancing to 3.1% and consumption levels rising to 4.3%.
The cash rate was held at 0.10% in March and consumer sentiment increased by 2.6% to 111.8, just 0.2 points below the ten-year high of December. JobKeeper and JobSeeker policies ended in March and despite fears of negative impacts, the economy continued to recover with both manufacturing and services PMIs increasing by 1.1 and 2.9, respectively and remaining in expansionary territory. Additionally, March saw big bank lenders look to increase their fixed term rates on 3- and 4-year retail home loans with the expectation that interest rates will increase faster than RBA projections.
April did not see any change in the cash rate and business confidence remained above its long-run average with data providing a positive signal for business investment and hiring. The highly anticipated opening of the Australia-New Zealand travel bubble came to fruition at the end of the month.
Josh Frydenberg released his third budget in May, showing a mere 0.2% economic contraction from last year, a positive sign of the large levels of fiscal and monetary stimulus. The budget highlighted the cost of the COVID-19 support package, coming in at close to $300 billion. Consumer sentiment fell during this period, reflecting potential attitudes towards the budget. In optimistic news, there was a large decline in unemployment expectations with the May index reading 100.2, the lowest in ten-years, eliminating any concerns about the conclusion of JobKeeper and JobSeeker.
With June came a fresh COVID-19 outbreak in Greater Sydney and surrounds, resulting in a three-week lock down mandate. With inevitable repercussions for industry throughout wider NSW and beyond, businesses continue to struggle with the economic burden of these measures.
After initially being hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, the US started the financial year with the lowest GDP in recorded history, with a massive 5.0% economic contraction. In more positive news, consumer sentiment was low but still strong in July. Additionally, lawmakers were set to negotiate a further stimulus package with Republicans to unveil a new coronavirus bill worth over US$1 trillion with this package being passed at the end of July. Moreover, the US formally quit the World Health Organisation (WHO), providing the required one-year notice period.
August saw the S&P 500 Index generate its best return since 1986, up 7%. However, tensions between the US and China continued to escalate. The Presidential race moved into its final stages, with Biden holding a moderate lead during August. The election tides turned when the American public witnessed Trump’s disregard for the safety of the US population when, amidst one of the deadliest pandemics in history, he still held in-person campaign rallies. By comparison, the Democratic Party looked to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading by holding rallies that could only be attended with attendees remaining in their cars. The behaviour of the Republican party culminated in the former president, First Lady and many of Trump’s party testing positive for COVID-19 during October.
The upcoming election saw investors polarised during September as markets considered the potentially volatile post-election economic impacts.
In September, Biden led the polls with 279 electoral votes, compared to Trump’s 125. Additionally, tensions between the US and China were realised when The World Trade Organisation (WTO), announced that US tariffs on Chinese goods were in violation of international trade rules. Moreover, by September month’s end the US economy had still yet to regain 11 million of the original 20 odd million jobs from the pandemic.
October predicted a Joe Biden victory and the US economy continued to recover after dropping by nearly a third in the first half of the year on an annualised basis. The recovery highlighted positive sentiment that the country may regain some economic normality. On November 7, the polls opened for one of the most highly anticipated elections in history. The lead up to the election was still predicting a Biden win and news of the new President Biden saw the strongest post-election market rally in history. The S&P 500 and Dow Jones hit all-time highs in mid-November following election results and positive news from COVID-19 vaccine trials.
End of the calendar year showed strong market results, finishing December once again at an all-time high off the back of additional government stimulus. Manufacturing PMIs came in at 57.1, an improvement on 56.7 from November. Conversely, service PMIs fell to 54.8 from November’s 58.4. Moreover, the US cut 140,000 jobs, disappointing compared with the expectations of a 71,000 increase. Unemployment remained steady at 9.8 million, 6.5% below pre-COVID levels. Finally, as the second and third wave swept across the country, December saw California implement a stay-at-home order and across the country, New York closed all indoor dining and bars.
The inauguration of the 46th US President Joe Biden occurred on January 20th and following the prospect of a significant stimulus package being agreed on by the new administration, the S&P 500 and Dow Jones hit historic highs. Under President Biden, the US also re-joined the WHO as well as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Consumer sentiment came in at 79, slightly below December’s 80.7 reading. However, the average consumer sentiment level across the year has been 81.5 indicating a relatively benign result. January held disappointing results for the US GDP which contracted 3.5%, the worst performance since 1946.
February saw 379,000 jobs added to the economy, exceeding expectations of a 182,000 rise. Overall, this brought the unemployment rate to 6.2%, down 0.1% from January and the lowest rate since March 2020. Additionally, the US saw a huge cold snap strike the east coast with states like Texas even seeing snow for the first time. This freeze saw oil prices jump as supply was disrupted and demand increased. March was a positive month for the US with the unemployment rate falling to 6% from 6.2% previously, the lowest rate in 12 months. The number of unemployed people fell by 262,000 and labour force participation edged up to 61.5%, a 3-month high. Additionally, the largest stimulus package in US history was approved by the Senate for US $1.9 trillion.
President Biden’s US$2 trillion future infrastructure build dominated April’s headlines. To pay for this strategy, Biden planned to increase taxes on high income earners and corporates, reversing much of the previous administrations tax cuts. The manufacturing PMI fell 0.4 to 60.7 in April, below market expectations of 65. Policymakers cautioned that despite strengthening of economic activity amid vaccination progress, the pandemic will continue to weigh on future economic outcomes.
Coming into May, US GDP predictions were revised upwards by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) with annual growth expected to be 6.4% in 2021. Unemployment continued to fall by 444,000, the lowest since March 2020.
President Biden proposed an ambitious budget including US$6 trillion in spending for the next financial year. Consumer confidence declined in May down to 82.9. In other news, there was a ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline by Russian cyber-crime gang DarkSide. Colonial paid the gang US$4.4 million in bitcoin to avoid any prolonged impacts. Apprehension caused by the attack, resulted in increased fuel prices in May.
China entered this financial year in a much stronger position than the rest of the world. With the economy returning to growth after a 6.8% contraction in Q1 2020. However, as of July China’s continued recovery was threatened by heavily reduced demand in the wake of secondary waves of COVID-19 across the globe. China’s Caixin manufacturing PMI rose from 52.8 in July to 53.1 in August, the largest increase in nearly a decade, fuelled by substantial private investment in real estate projects alongside increased orders of pharmaceutical and electrical goods. People’s Bank of China began testing a central bank digital currency (CBDC) with the deputy governor reporting 3.13 million transactions made, worth 1.1 billion yuan.
By October, China’s economy had seen significant recovery, erasing almost all the losses seen during the start of the pandemic. This recovery continued as the Chinese economy strengthened further into November with the manufacturing PMI rising 1.3 from the previous month. However, the start of the new calendar year brought increased case numbers ahead of the Lunar New Year Holiday, sparking fears of a second wave. Despite this, both the manufacturing and services PMI improved from December up to 57.7 and 52.8, respectively.
February showed signs of slowing economic growth with the services PMI dropping to 51.5, a ten-month low. However, these concerns were eased in March as the manufacturing PMI rose to 51.3 from February and service PMI picked up to 54.3. These were the strongest readings since December as factories resumed production following the Lunar New Year Holiday. China’s economic recovery continued into April, however, the end of the March quarter showed China’s slowest quarterly growth rate since the Global Financial Crisis, expanding by 0.6%. Following this, the IMF predicted China’s GDP to expand 8.4% in 2021. Additionally, year-end saw the Chinese government announce they would allow couples to have a third child to mitigate impacts of the One Child Policy which has had adverse impacts on natural population growth.
Japan had an optimistic start to the year with the rate of national inflation stabilising at 0.1%, representing the first time in three months that prices did not decline on an annual basis. This hinted at signs of economic revival following a COVID-19 induced state of emergency. However, with business activity continuing to contract, business sentiment was slightly lower than previous months. The manufacturing PMI eased coming into August, closing at 47.2, up from 45.2 in July and this increase continued into September where it reached 47.7, the highest it had been since February. This showed signs of positivity despite Japan’s Tankan Survey revealing conditions for both manufacturing and non-manufacturing sectors had declined over Q1.
The Japanese economy has been severely impacted by COVID-19 but the end of calendar year showed positive signs when the Nikkei reached 29-year highs towards the end of November and with the government announcing additional stimulus measures at the start of December. The strong performance from the Nikkei continued through January, hitting historic highs on January 25th. January also saw Japan face a rise in COVID-19 case numbers and a new strain of the virus which was reflected in the Japanese Consumer Confidence Index (CCI) which decreased to 29.6, its weakest result since August. Improvements were seen in February with the CCI increasing by 4.2 points.
As of February, Japan had plans to cancel the summer Olympics due to uncertainty surrounding the allowance of spectator crowds, whilst with the country remained in lockdown. In its March meeting, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) maintained its key short term interest rate at -0.1% with the target for the 10-year Japanese government bond yield at approximately 0%. Consumer confidence continued its upward trajectory, increasing a further 2.2 points in March. The Japanese economy suffered in May as the third emergency declaration was extended to the 31st of the month. It was originally implemented on the 25th of April with the intention to lift it by the 11th of May, however had to be extended due to the increased number of infections. This extension is estimated to cost the Japanese economy US$9.2 billion.
As of May, the Japanese Olympics was set to go ahead despite concerns that hosting the games would result in greater spreading of COVID-19 that would end up costing the economy more than cancelling the event, In June, it was confirmed the games would proceed but with crowds limited to 10,000 and athletes to receive COVID-19 tests daily.
India had a grim start to the financial year with the second-highest daily COVID-19 infection and death rate in the world, having dire economic impacts. In August, there was a small amount of hope as the manufacturing sector experienced its first signs of growth since March with the August manufacturing PMI increasing by 6 points since July. Despite much of Asia experiencing positive sentiment during October, India faced a stark contrast with retail inflation staying above 7% as vegetable prices soared as excessive rainfall across the nation caused a decrease in supply. Concurrently, millions in India faced unemployment due to the pandemic and as at October India had the second-highest number of total infections in the world, at over 8.5 million cases.
After experiencing record economic quarter on quarter contractions of 23.9% and 7.5% in June and September, respectively, India officially entered recessionary territory after two consecutive negative quarters of GDP. However, December showed signs of recovery which was backed up by the release of Q4 numbers in February showing a 0.4% growth in the last three months of 2020, this represented the first quarter of positive growth in three quarters. Additionally, the fourth quarter showed improvements in the Business Expectations Index (BEI), increasing by 3 points from the previous period up to 114.1.
The end of the financial year saw India hit with a resurgence of COVID-19. There were signs during May that cases were beginning to ease, with numbers falling below 200,000 on May 24th – the lowest they had been since April 14th. However, as of June India has the second most cases globally recording over 29 million cases and 387,000 deaths.
The Eurozone began the financial year with the announcement of a €750 billion stimulus package to help boost the economy and turn attention to the recovery after materially curbing the spread of the virus. Additionally, the European Central Bank (ECB) retained their monthly commitment to purchase €1.35 trillion worth of bonds. Heading into August, the Eurozone broad economy looked grim contracting by -10.1% and with consumer confidence down to -14.7, pre-pandemic readings of -6.6 seemed a distant reality.
September showed slight improvements with consumer confidence increasing by 0.8 to finish the month at -13.9. Europe has seen slow economic recovery since the pandemic, with drawn out Brexit negotiations heavily impacting UK shares throughout the year. The European Union (EU) and the UK entered their final negotiations in November, ahead of the December 31st deadline.
European PMIs declined from October by 4.9 down to 45.1 at the end of November. Moreover, the Eurozone’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate declined further to 8.3% in November, down from 8.4% and even further from the two year high of 8.7% in July. December saw the long-awaited Brexit agreement after almost four years of negotiations with the key outcome being that there would be no tariffs or quotas between the EU and UK but as of the 1st of January, there would be additional checks and custom regulations required.
Following Brexit, the EU shifted focus towards vaccine roll outs and economic recovery. Services and manufacturing PMIs declined by 9.9 and 3.4 respectively, with the decrease in manufacturing being attributed to weaker export demand as a result of COVID-19 and new Brexit paperwork requirements.
February brought optimism to the Eurozone with the manufacturing PMI hitting a three-year high of 57.9, up from 54.8 in January and services PMI increasing by 0.3 from the previous month. Additionally, employment also increased for the first time in almost two years. March saw the manufacturing PMI continue to soar to 62.5, indicating operating conditions had improved to the largest degree on record. April saw more positive news for the Eurozone with consumer confidence confirmed at -8.1, the highest level since February and well above the long-term average. Finishing the year on a high, the manufacturing PMI remained strong while the services PMI increased to 55.1 in May, the strongest it has been in 35 months.
Over in the UK, July saw the Furlough scheme was forecasted to help over 9.5 million employees after registered unemployment claimants for the end of the previous year hit over 2 million.
Additionally, Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre claimed Russian intelligence almost certainly hacked the COVID-19 vaccine development organisations in multiple countries. In August, British house prices hit a record high, increasing 5.2% compared to the same time last year. The manufacturing PMI fell 1.1 between August and September, marking a two and a half year high.
The end of the calendar year saw the UK’s consumer confidence improve to -26 in December from -33 in November. In February, the Bank of England (BoE) unanimously decided to maintain interest rates at the record low of 0.1% and left its bond-buying program unchanged. Business optimism rose to a 77-month high in February with over 63% of companies expecting output to be higher in 12 months’ time. Additionally, both the manufacturing and service PMIs improved from January, up by 1 and 10 points, respectively. Again, in March the BoE decided to hold the benchmark interest rate at 0.1% and both manufacturing and services PMIs ended higher than the previous month, indicating expansion as a result of easing restrictions and increased certainty around Brexit.
The UK headed out of lockdown in April and as such, the country’s CCI rose to -15 in April. Manufacturing and services PMIs continued to rise, finishing April at 60.1 and 60.9 respectively. Interest rates were kept at record lows while the PEPP quota was maintained at €1.85 trillion with the purchase plan to run at least until March 2022. The end of the 2020 calendar year saw an optimistic outlook for the UK with easing of restrictions, fiscal support and increased vaccine distribution making way for predictions that GDP could increase by 6% by year end. The positivity continued with the CCI improving by 6 points in May, up to -9, on par with pre-COVID levels.
Highlights of the developments across markets over the financial year
In almost a complete turn-around to what markets experienced across the last financial year, we saw a tale of two halves being negative returns in the first half of the year and positives in the second half. This year, with the environment of both supportive monetary (interest rate) and fiscal (government spending) policies, all major listed asset classes delivered strong returns. Albeit in the face of volatility driven by headwinds from fears of rising inflation, the pace of vaccine roll-outs, and uncertainty as to what the new global economy will look like.
Chart 1a. below shows the relative returns for the key Asset Classes over the 1 year and 3 years to 30 June 2021. When we measure the last 1-year outcome against the last 3 years, it is clear that the returns delivered for growth assets are of historical proportion, with our own share market delivering close to a 30% return, although eclipsed by international shares (hedged) that delivered nearly 35%, and Global Listed Real Estate, over 30%. Commodities, as a broad basket, delivered a strong return likewise on the back of strong demand for minerals specifically iron ore, oil, agriculture and livestock as economies began to open up again.
Chart 1b. also highlights the near zero to negative returns over the last year for Fixed Interest, both Australian and international, as well as Cash. Given cash rates globally have been anchored since the start of the pandemic at or below zero for the likes of Japan and Europe, these defensive asset classes will continue to face lower potential returns. While a phrase many have thrown around for the past few years, ‘lower for longer’, we do expect Bond and Cash returns to remain challenged for the foreseeable future. When rates do start to rise, Bonds will be placed under further pressure until global monetary policy settings normalise whilst Cash will benefit as higher interest income is earned on cash savings and deposits. It is important however to appreciate the role of fixed income in an investment portfolio as it, by its nature, is a defensive asset that is designed to cushion a diversified portfolio against any large market falls such as those we saw in March 2020.
Indices used (left to right) Bloomberg AusBond Bank Bill Index , Bloomberg AusBond Composite 0+ Yr Index, Bloomberg Barclays Global-Aggregate Total Return Index Value Hedged AUD,
Market Volatility Index to 30th June 2021
Last year saw volatility (as measured by VIX) spike during 2020, surpassing the past high during the GFC in 2009. Over the course of this financial year the index progressively fell as investors began to look past the COVID-19 pandemic and the opportunities for growth asset as economies began to open up whilst being supported by low interest rates and substantial levels of government monetary and fiscal stimulus. Generally speaking, when the VIX is in a low or downward trajectory, investors are more likely to pursue higher risk strategies or more growth orientated asset classes, thus creating upward pressure on equities.
Over the financial year we saw the majority of major markets rise with many hitting record levels as the unknown impacts of COVID-19 began to fade along with economies beginning to gain traction back to pre-COVID levels of growth.
Chart 3. below shows that as economies began to reopen over the course of year, and with many global companies delivering surprise earnings, major developed country share markets all rose strongly over the measured period. Whilst this is only a short-term view of markets, we need to be conscious that there remain risks in the market and that at some point in the future volatility will return. As we move into the next financial year, key risks such as the ‘yet to manifest itself’ inflation concerns, stretched company valuations measured by P/E ratios, central banks calls on normalisation (increases) in interest rates, Governments tapering or even ceasing stimulus measures, all coupled with the worry over vaccine efficacy and roll outs, the next few months will be a critical phase for the current market cycle.
Major Equity Markets to 30 June 2021
Whist we still have governments and central banks continuing to roll out stimulus measures to aid the economic recovery after the shock of the pandemic, and subsequent global economic shutdown, we are conscious of the current impacts of the 2nd and 3rd waves of the virus now in many mutating forms. The most recent being the extremely contagious ‘Delta strain’ that will be another test for individuals, businesses and governments. We do however, on a look ahead basis, see more stability in markets compared to the previous year as there is strong evidence of momentum in many major economies that will aid market conditions in the times ahead.
In Australia, only a matter of months ago we entered our first technical recession in almost 3 decades. However, within 3 months we were out of recession, such was the degree of stimulus and central bank intervention to re-prime the economy. With interest rates not expected to rise until at earliest 2023, and with improved unemployment statistics- coupled with rising consumer and business confidence, consensus is of the opinion that we will get through this most recent outbreak of COVID-19.
When looking globally, we have trade and territorial challenges with China along with ongoing tensions in the Middle East – in addition to the Biden administration exerting its influence across the globe. We also need to remember that a little over a year ago, the European Union was dealing with the reality of Brexit – something that the impacts of are still being assessed.
Generally, as was the case last year, over the long-term, both listed markets and unlisted assets such as property and infrastructure continue to provide an opportunity to build long-term wealth. Particularly now, given the continuing low returns on offer from cash and traditional bonds. As always, we support the strategy of diversification when investing, which leaves investors less exposed to unforeseen economic or market events.
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