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Independent Accountants' Investment Counsel Inc.

2020 - It Started Out Well

As 2020 began, the economy and stock markets were doing so well there was widespread expectation that the U.S. Federal Reserve would boost short-term interest rates to moderate growth and contain inflation.  Unemployment was approximately 3.5%, a record low in the US.  Concerned that with full employment, wage inflation was on the horizon, the Federal Reserve seemed to be prepared to pre-emptively use monetary policy to keep this in check.  Despite the potentially overheating economy and possible Fed response, stock markets rose to record highs in February.  

 

The Virus Outbreak

 

News of a virus originating in China and migrating to other parts of the world spooked markets in late February.  The virus outbreak quickly became a reality, and to contain the spread governments began mandating shutdowns of many parts of the economy.  With unprecedented speed – in less than one month – economies stalled, unemployment rose from record lows to levels not seen since the Great Depression and the major stock markets plunged by more than 30%. 

 

Ten months after the virus outbreak, with markets now exceeding their pre-COVID highs, it might be easy to forget the turmoil that gripped the world in those tumultuous early weeks of the outbreak.  We might not remember that the prospect of the development an effective vaccine or treatment was completely unknown.  The length of government shutdowns was uncertain.  Would the virus “disappear” in the warmer weather as summer came to the northern hemisphere?

 

While economists and analysts began to evaluate various probable scenarios and the paths to economic recovery, equity markets around the world quickly fell by 30% to 35%.  Although we didn’t know it at the time, the markets bottomed out in late March, slowly rising after that due to government stimulus programs and a growing understanding of the virus itself and how to combat it. 

 

Government Stimulus, Market Recovery and Vaccine Development

 

The extent of the market recovery in the last nine months of 2020 has provided relief for panicked investors but seemingly defies logic.  The economy has not yet fully recovered – the U.S. unemployment rate at the end of November was 6.7% (8.5% in Canada) – and COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations hit record highs over the year-end.  Nevertheless, stock markets have recovered and surged past pre-COVID levels.    

 

How to explain the apparent disparity between the market rebound and the incomplete economic recovery due to resurging virus levels?  First, while unemployment surged and then only partially recovered, total aggregate income has actually increased due to government relief measures placing cash directly in the hands of consumers.  Secondly, some sectors and industries have fared extremely well as a result of the virus outbreak, and those gains have somewhat outweighed the challenges incurred in other parts of the economy.  Thirdly, the development and distribution of effective vaccines has given markets the belief that the economic impact of the virus will be behind us as we progress through 2021.

 

Uneven Market Impact

 

As 2020 ended, stock indices were reaching new highs, fueled in part by the approval and rollout of vaccines to combat COVID-19.  Many investors figured that the new highs for stock markets would translate into a year of higher investment returns.  But as with different economic sectors, stock performance was not evenly distributed. 

 

In 2020, the weighting and performance of “Big Tech” was a major factor contributing to U.S. markets outperforming most other markets around the world.  In Canada, the TSX, heavily weighted by the financial and resource sectors, saw a very modest gain of just slightly over 2% for the year.  The DOW index, made up of large cap U.S. names, fared better, posting a gain of over 7% in 2020.  The S&P 500, a more broadly diversified index, saw a gain of over 16%.  The Big Five technology stocks (Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Google), which make up 22% of the index weighting, drove the performance of the S&P 500.  Without these five names, the remainder of the index saw more modest gains inline with the DOW.  The relative appreciation of the Canadian dollar vs. the US resulted in a 3% drag on performance from U.S. holdings of Canadian investors. 

 

Canadian preferred shares, which experienced sharp value declines in March, gradually climbed back to their pre-COVID values by the end of 2020.  Investment grade bonds laddered out over five years, normally placed in portfolios for income and safety, were now yielding returns of about 1% per year. 

 

Canadian clients with a balanced portfolio – for example with 50% invested in bonds and preferred shares, 25% in Canadian equities, 12.5% in U.S. equities and 12.5% in international equities -- would have experienced a strong recovery from the March lows, but nothing like the returns they see in the media about the performance of the U.S. stock market and in particular the Big Five tech companies.

 

Looking Ahead

 

As we put 2020 behind us and move forward into 2021, we see record-high virus-related hospitalizations, a wobbly start to vaccine distribution, stalling re-employment levels, a turbulent transfer of federal power in the U.S. and governments hesitant to inject more deficit-swelling stimulus into their economies. 

 

The way people live, work and socialize may be altered permanently as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak and as investors we need to adapt and adjust.  We at IAIC consider how various industries or economic sectors will be impacted in both the short and long term by the pandemic.  What do we see for 2021 and beyond and how does that affect our investment strategies for our clients? 

 

Before the virus outbreak, the technology and healthcare sectors were poised to grow and occupy a larger part of the economy over the coming decade.  COVID-19 did not ignite these sectors but it has accelerated emerging trends and growth.  Some analysts speculate that consumer and business adoption of technologies such as online shopping and video communications advanced by five years in 2020.   The growth potential of the healthcare sector has been boosted by the interest in eradicating COVID-19, a focus on mitigating the spread of new viruses or mutations, and an aging population that will stoke an increased demand for quality care, medications and research.  

 

On the other side of the coin, many industries may have been permanently impacted in a negative way or seen their declines accelerated.  The service, travel and hospitality industries will have a long and hard climb back. Some of this business will return quickly but is unlikely to reach pre-COVID levels in the short term.  Bricks-and-mortar retailers, who were already feeling the pinch from the growth of online shopping, saw that trend accelerate in 2020 and now face the daunting challenge of how to lure shoppers back to their floors.

 

Similarly, it is unclear how deeply the commercial real estate industry will be affected.  Will the “work from home” trend be permanent or only temporary?  Will businesses and their employees evolve away from congested city centres? 

 

Home improvements, a sector much larger than service and travel, surged throughout 2020.  It is widely anticipated this trend will subside somewhat as it becomes safer to leave the house, socialize more and return to our workspaces. 

 

Meanwhile, analysts expect the Fed to maintain its overnight lending rate at current levels in the range of 0 – 0.25% for an extended period into 2022 or even 2023.  Long-term interest rates are also expected to stay very low, making it difficult for investors to earn sufficient income from “safe” investments in investment-grade bonds or GICs.      

 

Our Investment Decisions Heading into 2021

 

Despite the volatility and uneven market performance that characterised 2020, we will continue to implement well-diversified portfolios for our clients, investing in companies with sustainable cash flows and strong balance sheets that will help these businesses ride out future disruptions.  Looking ahead to 2021 and beyond, we expect to continue making adjustments to client portfolios in the coming months.

 

The low interest rate environment continues to impact the income-producing component of our clients’ portfolios.  For longer term investors where income and growth are priorities over capital preservation, and near-term volatility is less of a concern, we may increase the allocation towards preferred shares and/or equities given the increased spread in yields between riskier asset classes and the relative safety of investment grade bonds provided the clients can tolerate the risk.

 

We plan to continue to increase our clients’ targeted exposure to technology and health care, not in response to performance in 2020, but because of their increasing impact on our daily lives.  Investing in a “basket” of names in this space – through ETFs and/or large cap names with established dominance – helps to mitigate volatility and risk while providing potential growth in the economy of the “new normal.”     

 

We are also setting a lower target allocation on oil and gas.  Given ongoing political considerations and the difficulty oil producers have in adjusting to decreasing demand, we feel that a reduced allocation to this sector is warranted.  We also feel that governments looking to stimulate their economies will invest in renewable energy and support an accelerated move to a “green economy.”  This is not to suggest that oil and gas will not remain relevant in the years to come, but   the historic and continued increase in demand year after year, regardless of the cyclicality of the economy, has been disrupted.  Growth within the industry has stalled and without equilibrium in the supply of and demand for oil, we expect to see continued pressures on oil prices and the profitability of the industry.

 

2021 promises to be an eventful year.  In our ongoing effort to provide reasonable risk-adjusted returns for our clients, we will continue to monitor the markets and adapt to events as they unfold.  Our bias to large capitalization, strong balance sheets, and dividends reflects the conservative nature of our client base and our investment philosophy.