The macroeconomic outlook continues to improve, and the recovery may be faster than one that typically follows a business cycle recession, as vaccination rollouts accelerate, and the US$1.9 trillion stimulus package has been signed into law. This has prompted a surge in inflation expectations and commodity prices and a bond sell-off. The latest round of global manufacturing PMIs have flagged rising input costs, growing order back-logs, and longer supplier delivery times. Commodity prices have increased sharply as seen in Bloomberg’s commodity price index, up 17.5% from December 1st to March 1st.1 Oil prices hit their highest level in more than a year in February with WTI crossing the US$60 per barrel mark.2 Higher shipping costs and input shortages will test central banks’ commitments to keep interest rates low for an extended period as pent-up demand could outpace supply. At this point in the recovery, households have used lockdown savings to pay down debt – particularly credit cards – while holding onto cash for precautionary reasons, causing demand to be suppressed.
Our twelve-month forward outlook remains at 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.
In China, an updated analysis shows that non-financial debt as a percent of GDP jumped 23% to 281% in 2020.3 The debt spike is likely to be temporary. China’s economy returned to its pre-pandemic growth path in the fourth quarter of 2020, which triggered an earlier-than-expected normalization in credit policy. In the Asia Pacific region, Australia’s economy grew at a stronger-than-expected pace toward the end of last year with a 3.1% non-annualized gain.4
The Euro Area has been hampered by lockdowns. The continent has been slow to ramp up vaccinations, with only slightly more than 5% of the population in major European countries having received at least one dose.5 The annual core inflation rate in the Euro Area, which excludes volatile prices of energy, food, and alcohol & tobacco, and at which the ECB looks in its policy decisions, slowed to 1.1% in February, from 1.4% in January.6 The U.K. is seeing a sluggish start to the year thanks to extended lockdowns and as the Brexit deal hit trade hard in January. A relatively speedy vaccine rollout that has seen 30% of the U.K. population receive at least one dose as of early March, should help the recovery beyond the current quarter.
The US$1.9 trillion stimulus package will add significantly to households’ purchasing power. Retail sales in the U.S. shrank 3% month-over-month in February of 2021, following an upwardly revised 7.6% jump in January.7 Housing starts reached the highest rate in 14 years in December as people moved away from the big cities due to the coronavirus pandemic but sank by 10.3% month-over-month in February.8 Prices for U.S. exports rose 1.6% from a month earlier in February 2021 while import prices increased 1.3% month-over-month.9 Canada’s fourth quarter GDP rose to an annualized 9.6%. The annual inflation rate remains low at 1.1% in February. Excluding gasoline, inflation was 1.0%, down from 1.3% in January.10
Despite a sell-off in the last week of the month, U.S. equities ended February on a positive note, with the S&P 500 posting a gain of 2.8%. Smaller caps outperformed, with the S&P Mid Cap 400 and the S&P Small Cap 600 up 6.8% and 7.7%, respectively. Volatility remained high, with the VIX closing the month at 27.95. U.S. Treasury performance was negative. Canadian equities ended February strongly, with the S&P/TSX Composite up 4.4%. Despite a sharp sell-off at month end, the S&P Europe 350 finished February with a gain of 2.7%, while the S&P United Kingdom rose 1.8% in pound sterling terms. Asian equities posted gains in February, with the S&P Pan Asia BMI up 1.7%. Government bonds sold off in February as investors digested a confluence of factors that look set to push inflation higher and could test central banks’ commitments to keep interest rates low for an extended period.
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 March, we maintained the asset allocation that we established in February. We continue to include some exposure to gold as a stabilizer in this volatile environment. Shorter duration fixed income has been maintained as the U.S. economy normalizes and inflationary pressures are rising.
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 BCOM Index. December 1 to March 1, 2021.
2 Bloomberg WTI Index. February 21, 2021.
3 Trading Economics. China Debt, BIS Statistics. March 2021.
4 Trading Economics. Australia GDP. March 3, 2021.
5 European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. March 17, 2021.
6 Trading Economics. Euro Area Inflation. March 17, 2021.
7 Trading Economics. U.S. Retail Sales. March 17, 2021.
8 Trading Economics. U.S. Housing Starts. March 16, 2021.
9 Trading Economics. U.S. Trade. March 17, 2021.
10 Trading Economics. Canada Inflation. March 17, 2021.
Index return data from Bloomberg and S&P Dow Jones Indices Index Dashboard: U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia, Fixed Income. February 28, 2020. Index performance is based on total returns and expressed in the local currency of the index.