In focus

Monthly markets review - December 2020


Highlights

  • Global equities gained in Q4 as a number of vaccine breakthroughs fostered hopes of a return to economic normality.
  • Government bond performance was mixed and corporate bonds gained ground.
  • Commodities gained on vaccine news and a weaker US dollar.

US

US equities gained over the quarter, with November especially strong due to the vaccine news. The developments eclipsed Joe Biden’s win in the US presidential election, as well as a $900 billion stimulus package announced in late December. The Federal Reserve nonetheless reinforced its supportive message, stating it will continue with current levels of quantitative easing. Economically sensitive sectors made the strongest gains, with more defensive sectors making more modest progress.

Eurozone

European equities gained sharply in Q4, again on the news of effective vaccines. Sectors that had previously suffered most severely from the pandemic, such as energy and financials, were the top gainers. However, rising Covid infections saw many European countries tighten restrictions. EU leaders approved the landmark €1.8 trillion budget package, including the €750 billion recovery fund, after overcoming opposition from Hungary and Poland. The EU agreed a Brexit trade deal with the UK.

UK

UK equities performed well over the quarter reversing some of the underperformance that they suffered versus other regions during the global pandemic’s initial stages. The market responded well to November’s vaccine news and then again to the Brexit trade deal, with domestically-focused areas of the market outperforming.

Asia ex Japan

The MSCI Asia ex Japan Index rallied strongly. South Korea was the best-performing index market, aided by strong gains from the tech sector. Indonesia, Taiwan, the Philippines and India also finished ahead of the index. Malaysia, Mainland China and Hong Kong SAR generated more modest gains and underperformed. In China, tensions with the US, and anti-trust moves weighed on sentiment somewhat.

Japan

Japanese equities rallied in the quarter, driven from early November by vaccine-related news and the US presidential election result. The style reversal seen in most markets has not yet materialised in Japan, with only a brief outperformance for value stocks, while small caps underperformed sharply in the quarter. The focus now is on the vaccine roll out, Japan’s general election timetable and the timing of a full corporate earnings recovery.

Emerging markets

Emerging market (EM) equities generated their strongest quarterly return in over a decade, with US dollar weakness amplifying gains. Korea, Brazil and Mexico all outperformed. The rally in commodity prices, in anticipation of a global economic recovery, was supportive of EM net exporters. Conversely, Egypt, where daily new Covid-19 cases accelerated, posted a negative return and underperformed. China finished in positive territory but also lagged. The launch of an anti-trust investigation into Alibaba and further escalation in US-China tensions dragged on sentiment.

Global bonds

Government bond yields diverged markedly. The US 10-year yield was 25 basis points (bps) higher, finishing at 0.91%, while the German 10-year yield fell by 5bps to -0.57%. Italian and Spanish 10-year yields saw significant declines of 32 and 20bps respectively, as the European Central Bank increased quantitative easing. The UK 10-year yield was little changed at 0.20%, as vaccine optimism was tempered by Brexit uncertainty and new lockdown measures.

Corporate bonds enjoyed a fruitful quarter, outpacing government bonds, with both investment grade and high yield delivering strong positive total returns. Investment grade bonds are the highest quality bonds as determined by a credit rating agency; high yield bonds are more speculative, with a credit rating below investment grade.

Convertible bonds gained 10.7%, benefiting from the tailwind of global stocks at record highs. This implies a strong 73% participation in the equity market gains in Q4. The primary market for convertibles has also reached highs not seen for the last ten years. All in all, $166 billion of new convertible bonds were issued in 2020. Valuations, especially in the US, have become more expensive, albeit from a lowly valued base.

Commodities

In commodities, the S&P GSCI Index registered a robust return in Q4. Vaccine news lifted hopes for a global economic recovery in 2021. US dollar weakness was also beneficial. Agriculture was the best-performing index component, driven higher by strong performance from soybeans and corn. The energy component also posted a positive return. Crude oil prices rallied as a stronger demand outlook offset concerns over increased supply. Industrial metals also gained, driven higher by copper and nickel. Precious metals were mixed, with silver generating a robust gain while the gold price fell.

Overview

Total returns (net) % – to end December 2020

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Source: Thomson Reuters DataStream.
Local currency returns in Q4 2020: *11.2%, **-0.0%.

 

Source: Schroders

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