If you ask anyone in the market why they are bullish for 2021, they will tell you right away that they see a light at the end of the Covid tunnel. And indeed, with the multiple vaccine news we have received since the beginning of November, there is a light. There may be many potholes, with the coronavirus cases, hospitalisations and fatalities on a disturbing upward trajectory, and a very tough winter staring us in the face, but there is a light that we can now all see. To have vaccines developed and now distributed in such volumes and with such tremendous efficacy levels, and done so quickly, does indeed make one tempted to believe in miracles we thought were only saved for the bible stories.
So what lies ahead for the coming year. A very rough first quarter for the economy. And then a better second quarter. And quite likely boom-like conditions in the second half of the year as substantial amounts of pent-up demand get released. You speak to most people, and the first thing they want to hear upon getting the jab are the words “please fasten your seatbelts”. Travelling, mall browsing, bar hopping, eating out, dare I say, socialising, will be all the rage. It is called “pent-up demand” for a reason. And this will be the single dominating force driving the economy in 2021, barring any unforeseen setbacks (as in, not enough of a vaccine take-up to achieve the Holy Grail of herd immunity. No central bank will dare tighten monetary policy even if inflation rears its (pretty?) head, the fiscal spigots will remain turned on in a major way. Interest rates, by hook or by crook, will not be allowed to rise as they have typically done in past aggressive economic recoveries. If you are a policymaker today, the last thing you will be doing is upsetting any apple carts.
So the economic outlook for 2021 is perhaps the easiest one to make that I can recall in my 35 years in the forecasting business. There will be a post-pandemic spending boom. It’s only a matter of how big and what quarter it begins. That light, indeed, does shine bright. Much of this good news, as an aside, is priced into every global financial asset you can probably name. Even the previously beaten-up airline, casino, retail and hotel stock you can think of has priced in the light at the end of the tunnel.
But, you see, from a financial markets standpoint, just as the economy booms next spring and summer, even into the fall, investors will at some point in 2021 have to confront what life is going to be like once we get past the light. At some point next year, I guarantee everyone that just as the markets were soaring during the darkest of hours during the pandemic in 2020 because of the light they saw at the end of the tunnel, these same markets will be beyond that light even as we all go out and have fun again. That’s the thing about markets – they move earlier and more quickly than people do.
All that said, I do think from an economic standpoint, there will be an economic recovery of epic proportions. But the recovery beyond the end of 2021 will be muted and frustratingly slow, and it could take at least three years before all the economic damage from the virus and the lockdowns are ultimately recouped. Then think of a future with massive public deficits, debts, and government intervention and regulation. Then we have to consider, when we get to the other side, how these massive central bank balance sheets will get dealt with. Will the debts get monetised or not? And a world of reduced globalisation and more localised supply chains, an end to-just-in-time inventories, and what the future holds for taxation. I don’t know about you folks, but it is crystal clear to me that in this period of heightened uncertainty, it will be capital, and not labour, that defrays the cost of the rescue packages, and that means higher tax rates on capital gains and corporate income. The current surge in the deficit is not about shovels in the ground with some hope of future multiplier effects on the economy – it is simply a transfer from some future taxpayer to today’s household and business who are out of work and for some reason had no cash, savings, or liquidity to get through even a few months of shutdown for public health purposes.
What the world looks like when the crisis ends is truly anyone’s guess but I will say with 100% clarity that it is going to look a lot different than it did before. Not just the question over government policy, but at the individual level, months of isolation and distancing, and fear of a return of the pandemic are going to fundamentally alter lifestyles, and will have a profound influence not just on the way we live but how we conduct ourselves in our personal and commercial lives. For example, working from home is certainly going to be a more dominant force even once we move beyond the light at the end of the tunnel, with obvious negative implications for commercial real estate but positive implications for internet infrastructure, computer hardware and video conferencing. There is going to be a sharp reduction in travel to work, travel in general, and this means fewer cars on the road, there is nothing here that is very good for the auto sector, and the future therefore is really clouded for office REITS and commercial real estate in the large densely populated urban areas. But there are some bullish themes that emerge too. As we go into an era of elevated personal savings rates where people are going to focus on what they need, not what they want. This means to screen all of your equity exposure for “utility-like” characteristics – and that includes anything related to ecommerce, cloud services, delivery services and wiring up your home to become your new office. What lies beyond the light at the tunnel is a secular shift in economic behaviour that took place during this grim period of history; shifts I believe are secular in nature, that tell me to focus on areas of the market, consumer staples, health care and even big tech, that have morphed into essentials.
No doubt, the investment community is paying more for duration today than they ever have in history but since we can anticipate rates to stay low for years to come, this valuation driver becomes the dominant issue that will be driving the market and prospective returns. This is exactly why growth investing trounced value for much of the past decade, even before the pandemic. Ultimately, the growth-versus-value decision depends on what the world will look like once Covid-19 is in the rear-view mirror. But even with a vaccine, if we return to the pre-Covid world, when you think about it, it actually means a return to a slow-growth, low-interest-rate, and low-inflation world, which means growth will remain the place to be because they are the longest duration stocks in the equity market. For cyclicals and value stocks to work, you want faster economic growth, signs of inflation, and higher interest rates. There’s been a move recently into the value trade and it does make sense since these stocks are dirt cheap and deserve to be rerated positively for a post-pandemic world. But at the root, this is really just a mean reversion trade, and it may have more legs to it. But that is why it is referred to as the ‘value trade’ and not the ‘value trend’; for the same reasons value unperformed growth 80% of the time and by more than 3 percentage points per year during the 2009-2019 bull market expansion.
The major point I need to emphasise right out of the gates is that it can’t possibly be lost on anyone that what we had was a health crisis that morphed into an economic crisis and then somehow managed to morph into a financial crisis that was ten times worse than anything we saw in the Great Financial Crisis. We simply refuse to stop these cycles of redressing debt crises by adding more debt, which merely compounds the adverse effects from the recession that is inevitable, and yet at the peak of the cycle nobody ever seems to be prepared for one.
The vaccination process is no reason to believe we are not in some form of economic depression that has only been disguised by unprecedented policy stimulus. Just because your kid has training wheels doesn’t mean he (she) knows how to ride the bike. And we have an economy on our hands that could not survive without large-scale deficit finance and central banks suddenly acting like hedge fund managers. This is why it’s going to be a depression because what comes next is a secular change in attitudes towards credit and towards savings. I mean, seriously, over half of American households didn’t have enough cash on hand to even get through three months of a job loss — quite remarkable when you consider Canada went into this mess with a 50-year low unemployment rate of 3.5%. Not to mention the corporate sector where, for some reason, the word “liquidity” became a dirty nine-letter word this past cycle. Now every business has working capital they have to cover with a fraction of last year’s cash flow. And this got me thinking about how the future will be one of treating “savings” as sacrosanct. Beyond the quarter or two of pent-up demand release in 2021, frugality is going to emerge as the primary theme. It’s not the end of the world, either, unless you’re an advocate for a sustainable and vigorous economic expansion.
In a narrow view, the markets are telling us that the ‘new normal’ will be a ‘reversion to the mean’ where life goes back to normal. And to that I say not so fast. People will surely go back to restaurants, hotels and airplane travel in due course, but don’t think for a second that there will not be residual impacts. The narrative emerging from the recent trading action in the equity market tells us that we are going back to our old lifestyles and that is what I would bet heavily against. I have seen, and continue to see, secular shifts in behaviour that will transcend a couple of quarters of pent-up demand release, that we will be stuck with a permanently higher equilibrium personal savings rate and a permanently lower labour force participation rate. And if we do somehow revert to the old normal, remember that the prior ten-year period was one of low growth, low inflation and low interest rates. I don’t see that changing because the secular forces of aging demographics, massive debt burdens and extreme income and wealth inequalities, if anything, have become accentuated by the pandemic.
What the world looks like when the crisis ends is truly anyone’s guess, but I will say with 100% clarity that it is going to look a lot different than it did before. I sense that some of the structural changes in our economy could be long-lasting. Global supply chains could shrink, and in some cases we might see the full repatriation of manufacturing in certain industries, for instance in pharmaceuticals, food and high-tech like semiconductors. Areas deemed to be in the realm of national security. Before the pandemic, the emphasis was on “just-in-time” production, with parts being delivered just when they were needed in the manufacturing process. In the post-pandemic period, the emphasis could shift, to some extent, to “just-in-case” supply chains, emphasising proximity and certainty of delivery. And then beyond the question over government policy, we have to consider at the individual level, how months of isolation and distancing and in the future, a fear of mutation of the pandemic, are going to fundamentally alter lifestyles, and will have a profound influence, not just on the way we live, but on how we conduct ourselves in our personal and business lives.
Then we have to consider, when we get to the other side, the massive government debts we will have built up and how that, along with even more bloated central bank balance sheets, will get dealt with. Will the debts get monetised, or not? Or God forbid, will taxes have to go up on the middle-class? Just some things to contemplate in 2021 as we get our booster shots and then race to the local brasserie. The stock market is not the economy so don’t believe for a second that record equity prices means the road ahead isn’t going to be a bumpy one.