National Post (National Edition)

Investors rethink role of bonds, tech and ESG after chaotic year.


This has been a year like no other. As a tumultuous 2020 draws to a close, global asset allocators from BlackRock Inc. to JPMorgan Asset Management have outlined their takeaways for investors. Here are some of their reflection­s:


The massive stimulus doled out by global policy-makers when markets seized up in March led to one instance of a breakdown in what has long been a negative correlatio­n between equities and bonds. The 10-year U.S. Treasury yield rose from 0.3 per cent to one per cent within a week, and simultaneo­usly equity markets continued to fall. Now, as investors face lower-for-longer rates even as growth picks up, doubts are emerging whether developed-market government bonds can continue to provide both protection and diversific­ation as well as satiate investors seeking income gains. There's also a debate over the traditiona­l investing policy of putting 60 per cent of funds in stocks and 40 per cent in bonds, even though the strategy proved to be resilient during the year. “We expect more active fiscal stimulus than any other modern period in history in the next economic cycle, as monetary and fiscal policy align,” said Peter Malone, portfolio manager at JPMorgan Asset's multi-asset solutions team in London. “Future returns from a simple, static stock-bond portfolio will likely be constraine­d.” Some Wall Street giants recommend investors take a pro-risk stance to adapt to the changing role of bonds. Among them, BlackRock Investment Institute advised investors to turn to equities and highyield bonds, according to a note published in early December.


Few would have expected the swift turnaround in markets we saw in 2020. As COVID-19 spread, the S&P 500 Index plunged 30 per cent in just four weeks early in the year, a much faster tumble than the median one-and-a-half-years it had taken it to get to the bottom in previous bear markets. Then, as government­s and central banks shored up economies with liquidity, stock prices rebounded at an equally astonishin­g pace. In about two weeks, the U.S. benchmark was up 20 per cent from its March 23 low. “Normally you get more time to position your portfolio in a correction,” said Mumbai-based Mahesh Patil, co-chief investment officer at Aditya Birla Sun Life AMC Ltd. With markets moving so fast, someone in cash “would have been caught napping on this rally and it would have been difficult to catch up.” Being a bit contrarian helps, Patil said, adding that it's better for investors not to take too large a call on sitting on cash. They should also focus on a bottom-up portfolio so they can go through both up and down cycles, he said. SooHai Lim, head of Asia Equities ex-China at Barings, said the speedy market recovery proved the soundness of the old saying “Don't fight the Fed.” That said, some fund managers warned that investors should not take swift central banks support as guaranteed. “It was a flip of a coin where it went from there and whether they'd stepped in early enough,” said John Roe, head of multi-asset funds at Legal & General Investment Management in London. “The downside could have been unpreceden­ted.”


This year's dizzying rally in tech stocks gave investors an opportunit­y of a lifetime. Anyone who missed out on this theme that benefited greatly from stay-at-home and digitizati­on trends in the pandemic would most likely find their portfolios lagging benchmarks. The top 10 U.S. companies that have contribute­d the most gains to the S&P 500 Index this year are all technology-related stocks, ranging from cloud-computing pioneer Inc. to chip maker NVidia Corp. Even with a short pause in November when positive trial results from a COVID-19 vaccine spurred a rotation into lagging cyclical shares, technology has ended as the top-performing sector in Asia and Europe. Adherents of the value strategy saw multiple false starts during the year, as investors bet that the group of shares, defined by cheapness and mostly comprising names sensitive to economic cycles, would finally have their day. They were disappoint­ed. “Never underestim­ate the impact of technology,” said Alan Wang, portfolio manager at Principal Global Investors in Hong Kong. Thanks to cheap borrowing costs, “a lot of new technology has been re-rated and this (pandemic) just created a great opportunit­y for them to reinvent our lives.” Innovative stocks now are being valued on intangible factors such as goodwill and intellectu­al property rather than traditiona­l methods like price-to-earnings ratios, Wang said, adding that investors should adopt such valuation strategies.


The pandemic and the speed with which it roiled markets showed investors they should stick with companies with strong balance sheets that can ride the waves of uncertain times. “The resilience of stocks in a year like this helps to prove their worth and justify their higher valuation multiples in a low rate world,” said Tony DeSpirito, chief investment

officer of U.S. fundamenta­l active equity at BlackRock. The year 2020 reaffirmed two important lessons DeSpirito has learned over the years: investors should undertake stress tests on companies to see if those firms' earnings and balance sheets are strong enough to survive recessions during normal times; and they should diversify investment­s risks and also increase sources of alpha potential.


Policy-makers' decisive rescue plans came at a cost for investors in some sectors. European banking shares tanked after being ordered to halt dividends to preserve capital. In Asia, real estate became the second-worst-performing industry after energy shares this year, weighed down by property owners when some markets like Singapore's passed laws asking landlords to provide some tenants with rent relief. “The government this time around has been quite heavy-handed,” said SooHai Lim, head of Asia Equities ex-China at Barings. “They have been more co-ordinated, a lot faster and more decisive.” Lim said he will price in a higher risk level when investing in certain sectors like banks, which are “definitely more exposed to regulatory interventi­on.”


ESG-related assets managed to outperform in many pockets of the market during volatility, proving skeptics wrong. For example, an FTSE index of global stocks with significan­t involvemen­t in environmen­tal markets is up 35 per cent this year, outperform­ing the global equity benchmark by more than 20 percentage points. “The COVID crisis has brought the need for more rapid change into sharp focus and we are seeing clients of all types reassess their long-term objectives and the outcomes required of their investment­s,” said Harriet Steel, head of business developmen­t at Federated Hermes. In fact, the pandemic has prompted massive inflows to ESG-related products. Global funds investing in or adopting strategies related to clean energy, climate change and ESG have grown their assets under management by about 32 per cent from a year earlier to a new record US$1.82 trillion in 2020, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. “This year showed me that anything can happen,” said Michael Antonelli, managing director and market strategist at Robert W. Baird & Co. “The things I had no idea would happen actually did.”

 ?? SPENCER PLATT / GETTY IMAGES FILES ?? The year brought debate over the traditiona­l investing policy of putting 60 per cent of funds in stocks and 40 per cent in bonds.
SPENCER PLATT / GETTY IMAGES FILES The year brought debate over the traditiona­l investing policy of putting 60 per cent of funds in stocks and 40 per cent in bonds.

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