Alternative Markets Outlook 2022
2021 was firmly in the grasp of Covid-19 through the Delta and Omicron strain. Although Covid-19 was managed solidly, the imposed restrictions and the economic interventions have severely impacted the economy and society. Not only has inflation skyrocketed but it is also likely to persist for quite some time. In January 2021, the US CPI was at 1.4% and rose to 6.8% in November 2021. In Europe, the situation looks similar, although the initial surge started earlier in the US and currently Europe’s inflation is lower with 4.9% in November 2021. In 2022, inflation will prevail with even higher levels in early 2022 with a realistic chance to subside towards the latter part of 2022. This rather grim outlook is largely in line with the observation during 2021, when inflation targets were mostly too low and the estimated time period were too short. The US will probably experience slightly higher levels, due to the larger extent of money printing to fight Covid-19 originally. Central bank intervention will be reduced to normal levels in the latter part of 2022. It has been already announced that they will scale back their asset buying programs but not entirely. Depending on how Covid-19 is evolving, it seems reasonable that towards the end of 2022, these programs will be discontinued. Aside from these monetary interventions, there were also substantial fiscal interventions, as shown in Figure 1. Figure 1 depicts the US national debt and the increase of additional trillion of debt. Since Covid-19 emerged, six additional trillions were spent to fight the immediate impact. In particular, the speed at which the money was spent is remarkable. While it took between 30 and 300 days for an additional trillion during Covid-19, it took between 170 and 320 days during the global financial crisis in 2008. The measure undertaken to fight Covid-19 are massive but they have helped the economy to bounce back. Among others, the development of the employment is largely desirable. For example, in the US, the unemployment rate was reduced to 4.2% from its peak of more than 14% in 2020. Equity markets, which have contributed in a major fashion to the overall success of 2021, will be largely impacted by Covid-19 in 2022. This was once again observable in November 2021 when Omicron emerged. Assuming a positive development, it is likely that equity markets will keep rising, although at a normal pace below unlike 2020 and 2021. Figure 2 and 3 show the S&P 500 and the Euronext 100 indices over the past two years. Since January 2020, the S&P 500 gained 47.5%, while the Euronext 100 gained 18.9%. The gains since their bottom in March 2020 are 118.4% for the S&P 500 and 86.0% for the Euronext 100. One potential reason for the strong growth in 2020 and 2021 may be due to expected inflation ahead, which is compensated by higher nominal gains. This effect is likely to fade given the enormous growth numbers in 2021 which have given rise to doubts about the sustainability of these profits alongside fears of another financial bubble. This is in particular true for industries that have benefited from Covid-19, such as technology. One example of seemingly unhealthy gain is Tesla, which is up more than 1,000% since Covid-19 emerged. The companies benefiting from Covid-19 should be viewed with caution, while companies that were negatively affected by Covid-19 certainly involve less risk. A negative development with the handling of Covid-19 could turn the situation upside down again and trigger similar effects as in March 2020. This may occur, for example, if a new strain emerges with a substantially increased fatality rate, is spread relatively easily and vaccinations are of only mediocre effectiveness against the new strain. Yet, this scenario is rather unlikely given that with each wave, the number of infections remains at a relatively similar level, while hospitalizations and fatalities decline. Furthermore, virus strains that spread more easily, such as Omicron, frequently are less deadly. These two observations favour the good scenario going forward. In an environment of high volatility and many opportunities, alternative assets are well positioned. Figure 4 highlights the volatility in the market measured by the VIX. Since the occurrence of Covid-19, the volatility in markets has never reached levels prior to Covid-19, although there has been a massive improvement. From the peak in March 2020 and a level of more than 80, markets have stabilized between 15 and 25 in quiet times with occasional spikes. With regards to alternative assets, 2020 and 2021 were highly beneficial for several reasons. Firstly, in crises, actively managed vehicles are of increased interest as they try to mitigate the negative impact of the crisis. Secondly, due to the nature of being a healthcare crisis, this brings many opportunities with it. Thirdly, the substantial uncertainty in markets also favour alternative assets, as for example, private equity funds are less sensitive to significant short-term volatility. 2021 was especially profitable for the private equity and hedge fund industry, which make up the largest part of alternative assets. In the following sections, hedge funds, private equity, private debt and crypto assets are discussed in a more detailed fashion.
Just before the holiday season, Omicron is spreading rapidly around the world and causes most countries to impose further restrictions. The Netherlands went furthest with a new lockdown over the Christmas holidays. Due to the high infection rate of Omicron, many countries are recommending booster vaccinations for their citizens and introducing requirements of being vaccinated and negatively tested in an attempt to slow down the spread of the virus. This is not the only issue at the moment, as inflation rates are surging around the world. It is also estimated that inflation will remain high for longer than just a few months. In the US, the CPI has reached 6.8% in November 2021, up from 5.3% in August 2021. In Europe, the CPI is 4.9% in November, up from only 3% in August 2021. The situation is similar in the UK with 4.6% in November 2021. Equity markets have strongly profited from the strong interventions of central banks, as shown in Figure 1. After October 2021, equity markets did not maintain their strong upward trend. When Omicron emerged, equity markets dipped. Nonetheless, after it was thought initially that Omicron can be handled to some degree, markets recovered. This recovery only persisted for a short time, as the further restrictions around the world quickly made the illusion of Omicron being handled perish quickly. This strong performance of the public equity market has fuelled the private market. In particular, technology, healthcare and fintech were of tremendous interest. Figure 2 shows a summary of the growth of fintech in 2021. M&A and SPACs achieved a transaction volume of $337bn and several notable IPOs or direct listings have taken place. This includes Coinbase, Robinhood and Nubank among others. Figure 3 shows the development of fundraising in private markets since 2008. In 2021, almost $1tn in capital was raised by private equity, private debt, real estate and infrastructure. This year’s fundraising is the second largest only after 2019. By far the largest contributor is private equity with more than $600bn raised in 2021. Figure 4 shows the increase in AuM of private markets. In 2021, private markets have surpassed the $10tn threshold. In 2021, a substantial increase in allocated capital took place, as dealmaking was difficult in 2020. The fundraising in 2021 also caused the dry powder to remain high despite large commitments. Most of the assets are managed by the private equity industry and other types of assets.
After an exciting time in early November 2021, the enthusiasm in markets faded quickly. The newly found strain of Covid-19, called Omicron, caused a minor shock to markets. Apparently, it seems to be milder than for example the delta variant, but it spreads even faster. Nevertheless, any conclusions on the virus strain are too early to be reliable. Omicron further worries European countries, as their number of cases has been surging regardless of the high vaccination rates. Many countries are imposing further restrictions, after some travel bans have been initiated. Those have not proven to be effective, as Omicron has been detected in most countries already. Among the strictest countries is Austria that has announced that the vaccination is mandatory as of early next year. Despite this rather grim outlook before Christmas, equity markets only took a slight hit. Figure 1 shows the value of the S&P 500 over the past three months. Even though Covid-19 is again a major topic, the drop was only minimal. Equity markets still had a stellar year. The S&P 500, for example, is up 23.4% as of the time of writing. The SMC Equity Strategy Index is up 10.7% in 2021 and gained remarkable 4.16% in October 2021. Major contributors were the strategies Long/Short US Equity Consumer, TMT, Healthcare and Long/Short US Equities Disruptive Technologies with 9.33% and 9.50% in October 2021. The situation looks a lot worse for oil. WTI crude oil lost almost all gains from the past three months, as shown in Figure 2. Oil prices fell from almost $85 per barrel to $66 per barrel. This strong decline stems from the fear of excess supply, if Omicron should lead to more severe restrictions, such as lockdowns. Regardless, oil still has come a long way from its negative value back in March 2020 when Covid-19 became problematic. At the current price of $66 per barrel, oil is up 33.5%, which is still remarkably lower than its previous peak of 67.0%.