Jean Boivin, Head of the BlackRock Investment Institute together with Elga Bartsch, Head of Macro Research, Scott Thiel, Chief Fixed Income Strategist and Vivek Paul, Senior Portfolio Strategist all part of the BlackRock Investment Institute, share their insights on global economy, markets and geopolitics. Their views are theirs alone and are not intended to be construed as investment advice.
2020 was an extraordinary year for financial markets. The initial Covid shock triggered a massive selloff, followed by a risk rally that extended to the year end. We drew three key lessons from navigating markets. First and foremost, the nature of the Covid shock and the policy revolution triggered by the pandemic were core to the performance of risk assets and our overall asset views.
The initial Covid shock triggered a market plunge in early March. Early in the crisis we assessed the ultimate cumulative economic losses – what matters most for financial markets – would likely prove to be a fraction of those seen in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. We saw the Covid shock as more akin to a large-scale natural disaster that would be followed by a swift economic restart – if policy support could provide a bridge. We then witnessed the extraordinary policy response, and saw it as an opportune time to raise our strategic allocation to equities. On a tactical horizon we upgraded credit and increased our preference for quality assets – and held our moderate pro-risk stance over the rest of 2020. The ongoing fiscal and monetary policy support in 2021 will help prevent economic scarring as Covid vaccines create a bridge to a post-pandemic economy, in our view. See the chart above.
A key consequence of the policy revolution is the potential for a more muted response of nominal yields to higher inflation, as reflected in The new nominal theme in our 2021 outlook. We expect nominal yields to be capped by central banks as they have signaled they will be more willing to let economies run hot with above-target inflation. The result: stronger growth and declining real (inflation-adjusted) yields. We see this combination as under-appreciated by markets, and a potential booster to risk assets even as the prospect of a widespread Covid vaccination campaign has buoyed markets in recent months.
The second lesson from 2020 is the importance of long-term structural trends as drivers of asset performance. For example, the pandemic has reinforced an increased focus on sustainability and the dominance of e-commerce at the expense of traditional retail. Tech exposures with long-term structural tailwinds have continued to outperform. This helps inform our barbell approach to risk assets over the next six to 12 months: quality assets such as tech and healthcare stocks on one end, and selected cyclical exposures on the other. Quality assets with strong balance sheets and cash flows also offer resilience against potential bumps on the road to a full activity restart, in our view. We maintain our overweight in the quality style factor – a view that worked out well throughout 2020. We see traditional “value” sectors facing structural challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which could limit their upside even with a rapid restart.
The third lesson: It is important to be selective in cyclical exposures. In our midyear 2020 outlook we recognized the importance of tilting back into cyclicality. We closed our overweight in U.S. and Asia ex-Japan equities, and upgraded European equities to overweight. These calls turned out to be less successful than some of our other views, such as overweights in high yield credit and the quality style factor. We’ve since turned neutral on emerging market (EM) debt, and positive on EM equities.
The bottom line: Our directional risk views – driven by the nature of the Covid shock and the policy revolution – were critical in navigating turbulent market conditions last year. A key takeaway is how swiftly macro policies can evolve and the lasting impact this can have on market dynamics. The policy revolution that started in 2020 is still a key driver of our investment views for this year.
U.S. President Donald Trump has signed the new $900 billion fiscal package into law after months of negotiations among lawmakers, as Covid deaths climbed, restrictions tightened and data showed signs that the restart was losing steam. The UK and European Union have agreed on a trade deal. The UK has approved the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid vaccine as evidence has emerged that a more infectious strain of the coronavirus is spreading. We prefer to look through any near-term volatility and use it to add to high conviction investments.
U.S. December nonfarm payrolls data will be in focus this week. The November report and other job market data in recent weeks have been disappointing, as rising Covid deaths have led to more business restrictions and pointed to near-term risks. We see the positive vaccine news as a game changer as it provides clarity for policymakers, households and businesses about getting to a post-Covid stage.
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