We continue to spend the vast majority of our time on company research and there are doubtless other observers better placed to predict which path that the market will go down, but it seems more likely to us that the future will look much like the pre-COVID-19 recent past. For instance, central banks have become increasingly politicised in recent years. At the same time, many national governments are more indebted than ever, having rushed through huge wage support programmes—designed to postpone a severe economic reckoning as a result of the lockdowns that they imposed.
We believe 2021 will be remembered as a year that marked the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 crisis as the world develops vaccines to counter the pandemic. In Japan, we expect a gradual recovery of its economy in 2021, as the pandemic’s impact lessens, and economic activity normalises.
The year 2020 is one most would like to forget, but for markets, performance was particularly strong despite the substantial COVID-19-related economic fallout. Certainly, ample liquidity in the form of massive monetary and fiscal stimulus was a key driver of performance, but near-term optimism may also be warranted. The vaccine rollout could return demand to more normal levels in 2021 and potentially beyond, given the pent-up demand on the back of still-massive amounts of liquidity sloshing through the system.
Following the negative performance of 2020, we believe 2021 could see better returns and a recovery for Singapore equities. We believe equity returns will remain supported by the re-opening of the Singapore economy and expect an improved market performance in 2021. With the backdrop of fewer global trade conflicts, accelerating exports, accommodative policy, higher return on equity and low foreign ownership, we expect the outlook for 2021 earnings to improve and that should support better market returns.
Despite the pandemic, markets in China were resilient and we believe that they will continue to reach new highs in 2021. Structural factors that drove the Chinese markets in 2019 and 2020 remain intact and strong leadership enabled the Chinese markets to be among the best performing (if not the best performing) markets in the world. In addition to the structural factors that we have highlighted repeatedly over the past few years, such as import substitution trends, high value-added manufacturing and deep penetration and consumption of e-commerce, new structural factors have started to emerge that stoke our optimism towards the Chinese markets.
We expect North Asia to continue to lead the region’s recovery (at least in the first half of the year). But we also expect the growth divergence between North Asia and the rest of the region to narrow. Unprecedented fiscal support from governments have been pivotal to the ongoing recovery. We expect fiscal action to continue in the coming year but anticipate renewed private sector confidence as the vaccine becomes broadly available and provides a powerful tailwind to regional growth.
Asian countries have, by and large, handled the COVID-19 pandemic better than their western counterparts and are now emerging from that nadir. Most of these countries have plenty of fiscal and/or monetary stimulus headroom. And this superior growth and better national finances are available at a significant discount to developed markets. A languid US dollar will enhance local currency returns in these “risk assets”.
We expect Asian credit spreads will tighten gradually over the coming months, supported by a solid rebound in gross domestic product (GDP) growth for most Asian economies in 2021 and stable to slightly better corporate credit fundamentals.
The global markets surged in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic. While we expect the liquidity-driven rise to continue for a while, we should be prepared for the tide to eventually turn. We identify Japanese industries, notably “Delta ESG” stocks, that could become sources of alpha in the post-pandemic world.
While economic data is likely to remain soft, driven by the more recent lockdowns in the US and Europe, markets are rightly looking through the near-term gloom as impending vaccines for COVID-19 are showing the proverbial light at the end of this nightmarish tunnel. Over 2021, the world, in our view, should gradually return to some sense of normalcy as the pandemic slowly recedes in the rear-view mirror.