The tug-of-war between the virus and the global immunization effort intensified in March. The focus now will be on economic reopening. Every recession is different and the events that led to the great recession of 2020 were unique, as has been the response from governments and central banks. Through large-scale fiscal transfers and central bank actions in many economies, households and businesses have been supported through the crisis and are in a position to emerge with their balance sheets largely intact. Our twelve-month forward outlook remains three months of Growth, followed by nine months of Stagnation, as we have seen evidence of a stronger short-term recovery rebound but a lingering longer-term impact on employment and output.
Emerging Market Asia is being buffeted by a number of forces including the policy-induced downshift in China and the sustained pandemic drag. The Chinese economy advanced 18.3% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2021, accelerating sharply from a 6.5% growth in the fourth quarter of 2020.1 Exports from China soared 30.6% year-on-year to USD 241.1 billion in March 2021, slowing from a record 154.9% growth in February. Among major trade partners, exports were up to the U.S. (53.3%), the EU (45.9%), and Australia (23.1%).2
The Eurozone economy shrank by 0.7% in the fourth quarter of 2020, following a record 12.5% expansion in the previous three-month period. Among the bloc’s largest economies, France, Italy, and the Netherlands contracted in the fourth quarter, while GDP growth in Germany and Spain slowed sharply.3 For the year 2020 as a whole, GDP fell by 6.6%.4 The U.K. remains among the global leaders in vaccine distribution with nearly half of its population having received at least one dose and daily vaccinations reaching 0.8 per 100 population in late March. The consumer price inflation rate in the Euro Area was confirmed at 1.3% year-on-year in March 2021, the highest since January 2020.5
The U.S. is vaccinating its population and reopening its economy, while the fiscal response has also been more expansionary. The American Rescue Plan of $350 billion will be followed with higher tax rates, shifting interest towards more favorable asset classes including tax exempt municipal bonds. The U.S. economy expanded an annualized 4.3% in Q4 2020 but shrank 3.5% for the year.6 The U.S. dollar advanced and capped its first quarterly gain in a year, thanks to the U.S. growth dynamic versus its global peers. The Canadian economy expanded 2.3% in the last three months of 2020, following a record 8.9% growth in the previous period.7 Canada’s trade surplus narrowed to CAD1.04 billion in February of 2021 from a revised CAD1.21 billion in the previous month. Total exports decreased by 2.7% to CAD49.9 billion in February, a level 4.1% higher than that set in February 2020.8 On balance sheet policy, the Bank of Canada began its tapering at the end of April.
U.S. equities ended the first quarter of 2021 on a strong note, with the S&P 500 posting a gain of 6.2%. Smaller Caps outperformed, with the S&P Mid Cap 400 and the S&P SmallCap 600 up 13.5% and 18.2% for the quarter, respectively. Canadian equities posted strong gains in Q1, with the S&P/TSX up 8.1%. International performance was also positive. The S&P Europe 350 closed the first quarter of 2021 up 8.7%. The United Kingdom was responsible for 2.5% of the total while France was the second-largest contributor with 1.5%. Asian equities had a positive start to the year, with the S&P Pan Asia BMI up 2.7% in the first quarter. Early-2021 trends of rising government bond yields and strong equity markets continued in March, reflecting the brighter economic outlook and increased fiscal support, particularly in the U.S. In March, the MSCI All Country World Index gained 2.5%, led by the S&P 500 (4.2%) and the S&P/TSX (3.6%). International stocks also had a modest (1.8%) gain. By contrast, the MSCI emerging market benchmark shed 1.7%.
Equity exposure across all models reflects our view that markets are looking through the uncertainty of the pandemic and towards the resumption of more normal life once populations are vaccinated. In April, we maintained the asset allocation that we established in March. Fiscal spending that funds local governments supports our exposure to U.S. treasuries and municipal bond exposure in the U.S. We continue to include some exposure to gold as a portfolio stabilizer.
The economic reopening and the global stimulus that is underway will lead to improved household liquidity, a wealth effect from rising asset values and lower consumption, healthy consumer balance sheets, and a healing labor market. Our approach to portfolio management is nimble, opportunistic, and deliberate in identifying asset classes that are best placed to generate returns in a new world order. Our focus is on protecting portfolios from downside risk, and we believe that our investment process is working to achieve that goal.
Deborah Frame, President and CIO
1 Trading Economics. China GDP Growth. April 16, 2021.
2 Trading Economics. China Trade: General Administration of Customs. April 13, 2021.
3 Trading Economics. Eurozone GDP Growth. March 9, 2021.
4 Trading Economics. Eurozone GDP Growth: EUROSTAT. March 9, 2021.
5 Trading Economics. Eurozone Inflation. March 16, 2021.
6 Trading Economics. U.S. GDP Growth. March 25, 2021.
7 Trading Economics. Canada GDP Growth. March 2, 2021.
8 Trading Economics. Canada Trade. April 7, 2021.
Index return data from Bloomberg and S&P Dow Jones Indices Index Dashboard: U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia, Fixed Income. March 31, 2021. Index performance is based on total returns and expressed in the local currency of the index.