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Markets’ Upward Trajectory Continues

Markets' Upward Trajectory Continues
3 min 29 sec

Equity Markets

U.S. stocks continued their upward trajectory in 4Q20, and the S&P 500 Index hit a record high going into year-end. The Index was up 12.1% for the quarter, bringing its 2020 gain to 18.4%. Since the market low in March, the benchmark is up over 70%, with all sectors posting increases greater than 40%. The quarter’s winner, Energy (+28%), however, remains down 34% for the year. Technology (+12% in 4Q) was the best-performing 2020 sector with a 44% gain. Laggards for the quarter and the year were Utilities (+7%; +1%) and Real Estate (+5%; -2%). The pandemic has cast a pall over certain sectors while rewarding others; online retail stocks soared 69% in 2020, but hotels/cruise lines, airlines, and retail REITs dropped roughly 30%. Megacaps continue to account for a disproportionate amount of the index and returns; the five largest stocks (Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet) made up 22% of the S&P 500 Index as of 12/31, and for 2020, this group accounted for 12.1% of the 18.4% Index return. In 4Q, value outperformed growth across the capitalization spectrum but trails by a significant margin for the full year. Small cap value (R2000 Value: +33.4%) was the best-performing style group for the quarter but its 2020 gain is a mere 4.6%. Small cap outperformed large for the quarter (R2000: +31.4%; R1000: +13.7%) but 2020 performance was roughly even (+20.0%; +21.0%).

Developed ex-U.S. and emerging market indices (MSCI ACWI ex-USA: +17.0%; MSCI Emerging Markets: +19.7%) also posted robust returns for the quarter and the year (+10.7%; +18.3%). Double-digit returns were broad-based across both developed and emerging market countries for the quarter.

The U.S. dollar continued to weaken versus developed and emerging market currencies. Relative to a basket of developed market currencies, the greenback lost just over 4% for the quarter and more than 7% for the year. While emerging market currencies broadly rallied in 4Q, some have not recovered from poor performance earlier in the year.

Fixed Income Markets

U.S. Treasury yields rose steadily over the course of 4Q; the 10-year U.S. Treasury yield closed the quarter at 0.93%, up 24 basis points from Sept. 30, but off sharply from the year-end level of 1.92%. TIPS (Bloomberg Barclays US TIPS: +1.6%) strongly outperformed nominal U.S. Treasuries for the quarter as 10-year breakeven spreads widened from 163 bps to 199 bps. The Bloomberg Barclays US Aggregate Bond Index gained 0.7%, bringing its 2020 gain to 7.5%. Corporates strongly outperformed U.S. Treasuries for the quarter and the year (Bloomberg Barclays US Treasury: -0.8%; +8.0%; Bloomberg Barclays US Corporate: +3.0%; +9.9%) in spite of record 2020 issuance. High yield corporates (Bloomberg Barclays High Yield: +6.5%; +7.1%) outperformed investment grade for the quarter but trailed for the year. High yield default rates (6.2% y-o-y as of December) continued to trend higher but are expected to peak far below levels reached in the Global Financial Crisis. Separately, municipal bonds (Bloomberg Barclays Muni Bond Index: +1.8%; +5.2%) outperformed U.S. Treasuries for the quarter but trailed for the year.

Outside of the U.S., broad-based U.S. dollar weakness dampened hedged returns for the quarter. The Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Bond Index rose 3.3% (unhedged) and 0.9% (hedged). Emerging market debt indices posted solid results in the risk-on environment (EMBI Global Div: +5.8%; GBI-EM Gl Div: +9.6%) with emerging market currencies doing especially well; full-year returns are now in positive territory (+5.3%; +2.7%).

Real Assets

Real assets posted strong returns in 4Q though most indices remain in the red for the full year. The Bloomberg Commodity Index gained 10.2% and the more energy-heavy S&P GSCI Index rose 14.5%. Full-year returns for these indices are -3.1% and -23.7%, respectively. Gold took a breather and was roughly flat for the quarter but is up over 20% for the year. Oil prices continued to recover from the spring plunge; Brent Crude closed the year at over $50, a sharp increase from the $20 level hit in April. The Alerian MLP Index benefited, gaining 32.4%, but it is down nearly 30% for 2020. REITs also did well during the quarter but fell over the year (FTSE Nareit: +11.6%; -8.0%). TIPS (Bloomberg Barclays TIPS: +1.6%; +11.0%) outperformed nominal Treasuries for the quarter and the year.

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