If you don’t recall the most famous reindeer of all, Rudolph, the Montgomery Ward creation possesses the special characteristic to guide Santa’s sleigh among a fog that would have otherwise canceled Christmas. Like Rudolph’s nose, I’m going to highlight a couple of macroeconomics bright spots that we like right now, that will surely support markets and guide us through the fog of 2021. Enjoy the holiday season and may you have a prosperous new year.
Unemployment – I think it’s fair to say that the spike in unemployment (fastest spike ever) and the subsequent drop in unemployment (fastest drop ever) have given politicians the hyperbole they need, but the rate getting back to 6.7% means a couple of good things going forward. Firstly, the “easy to lose” and “easy to return” jobs were flushed out in the spike, and the jobs that could easily return have. This means that while each percentage point from here on out is going to be harder and harder, the headline risk of massive jobless swings has likely settled for now. Unemployment in the +6’s has been the recent peaks for prior negative economic swings. In 2003, we peaked at 6.3%, 1992 7.7% even the economic crisis in 2009 only saw a peak of 9.9%. So at least the unemployment figures have gotten back to “normal bad” and not “historically bad”. But here is the good news for 2021, from this point forward we will get positive headlines for employment. I think we have crested, the liquidity in the markets has helped, and near term the unemployment outlook is stable. This pandemic is different than a cyclical recession, this can be resolved as quickly as the damage was done, and for between 4-8 quarters we can see a routine and constructive print for joblessness. This will be a supportive series of headlines for markets.
Inflation – Inflation will be a headwind for bonds and cash but will be constructive for some assets. Those invested in equities will see an increase in capital chasing the same number of assets. This inflation will be constructive for stocks and other hard assets from 2021 but will cut into the expectations for the buying power of dollars going forward. Expect long term dollar weakness. Additionally, we’re not alone, this pandemic is global and I anticipate every central bank to prefer adding liquidity to their economies over the risk of inflation. Expect countries that emerge from the pandemic quickly to see a major tailwind from global inflation, those whose course is slower and shutdowns longer to be hampered by it.
Debt – Record low borrowing costs should tee up leveraged companies for success. This is absolutely a situation where “zombie” companies will be created, so investors should be aware of the health of companies they are buying, but long term, allowing companies that have been historically highly leveraged to restructure at amazing rates, or even granting companies that have healthy balance sheets more cheap capital to take on more cap-ex projects for the at least a decade or more will be supportive for the market on the whole. As I write this, the 2-10 spread is .8%, in my opinion giving corporate CFO’s carte blanche to begin issuing new debt and extending all maturities on existing debt. Seeing these companies become so tenacious in the debt market normally would spook investors, but it’s hard to imagine a more supportive environment for borrowers than sub-2% borrowing costs for AAA companies and sub-4% for high yield borrowers. Debt was low for the recovery after 2009 and is now bargain-basement prices. These are rates that are likely to persist through 2021 and with Janet Yellen (Dovish) at the treasury, and no change in the attitude of the Fed I’m not seeing a change in sight. This will likely mean yields will be below inflation for some time as central banks try to juice the recovery at the expense of inflation.
Earnings – Companies have broadly been able to understate their earnings projections through the pandemic. The science of slow-rolling their debts, and lowering the expectations of analysts has been fantastic. Companies across sectors have been able to step over the lowered bar without major disruption this year. Now while, for the most part, the pandemic has given them top cover to have earnings below their historic figures, the companies in the S&P 500 have done a fantastic job this year of collectively using this window to reset the expectations of investors without sounding alarms. Managing expectations lower, then beating them has been a theme in 2020, that in 2021 will look like a great trajectory for earnings as we emerge from COVID-19. This is going to be a fantastic and virtuous atmosphere of rising earnings. The usual suspects for this earning improvement cycle will show up, banks, technology, and consumer discretionary investors will like this reset in the cycle and the aforementioned upswing in earnings these groups are poised for.