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.
The most noteworthy event in September 2021 was probably the apparent collapse of Evergrande, one of the largest real estate companies in China, whose status is currently unknown. On Thursday, 16th September 2021, Evergrande issued a statement that it will not be able to repay the outstanding interest payments that day. Following this announcement, the financial market was in substantial stress. Equity markets all around the world lost a few percentage points and volatility spiked. Bond trading was under pressure as well, as Evergrande’s bonds were downgraded and frozen from trading. It sometimes was already referred to the next “Lehman Brothers” case. The volatility the stock has seen since is tremendous, as it lost nearly 80% in the first few days after the announcement. It seemed as though the situation had stabilized, but since not all due payments were paid on Friday, 24th September 2021, the status is unknown. If nothing else happens, which is highly unlikely, the company would enter a grace period following bankruptcy. There are three critical features involved in Evergrande. Firstly, China and Chinese people are heavily engaged with the company, as the company has sold many buildings already without having built them yet. A default would cause huge issues for the affected people. Secondly, many companies are frequently doing business with Evergrande, in particular construction, design and other suppliers, could also face bankruptcy alongside Evergrande. Lastly, the collapse of Evergrande would pose a substantial risk to the financial system of China. The latter one is in particular difficult, as the company has outstanding debt at more than 250 banks, which could put additional pressure on China’s ability to offer cheap debt, which is necessary to maintain growth level. Moreover, it does not make a China a more appealing place to invest for foreign investors, which were already on the decline since the recent developments
The macroeconomic environment will largely drive the market in H2 2021, which itself is based on significant degree how Covid-19 will evolve in the near future. With regards to the pandemic, the key questions are how the number of vaccinations evolve going forward, in particular as developed economies no longer have shortages of vaccines, but rather a declining number of people that want to get vaccinated. A crucial point is whether herd immunity can be achieved, either by being vaccinated or having had the virus. Another important point is how long the vaccine will last, as the cases of vaccinated people contracting the virus rises. Luckily, the symptoms seem to be minor. Probably even more important is whether new strains of the virus emerge that completely bypass vaccinations and essentially setting the world back to March 2020. The latter scenario seems less likely but should be considered to some degree. In a non-negative scenario, US inflation is likely to drop towards the end of the year with expectations around 3%. For the next years, it is expected that US inflation will remain between 2% and 3%, following the change in the FED’s inflation target of being 2% in the long-term instead of capping inflation at 2%. Thus, it is unlikely that inflation will drop below 2% for quite some time. In the EU, the inflation outlook is lower compared to the US, as the ECB expects inflation to rise to around 2.6% in Q4 2021. In 2022 and 2023, inflation is expected to remain around 1.5%. Furthermore, the FED and ECB also hinted at possibly putting more emphasis on employment instead of inflation going forward. This suggests gold being well positioned in the current market. As of July 2021, gold is almost back at its average in 2021 of $1800 per ounce. Despite being at a relatively high level historically, gold seems attractive with surging inflation and short-term interest rates being very close to 0%. Yet gold’s record high of more than $2000 per ounce lies back almost a year, at a point in which inflation was at 1% and not a concern for many. Since May 2021, inflows in gold ETFs are positive again albeit a bit sluggish. This is remarkable as previously, there were mostly only net outflows. Currently, the global gold AuM is at $214bn. Equities, in particular in the US, have experienced a great 2021, as shown in Figure 1. The S&P 500 is trading very close to its record high of around 4,450. During 2021, expectations for the S&P 500 level were adjusted multiple times. At the end of 2020, when the S&P 500 was 3,700, moderate expectations were around 3,900, while optimistic scenarios targeted 4,300. Yet, all those expectations were already surpassed in the low-interest rate environment, monetary stimulus and increased corporate earnings due to the recovery of the economy. Goldman Sachs has updated its target for the S&P 500 to 4,700 at the end of 2021. Contrarily, Chinese tech companies have suffered in July with the worst month since the financial crisis in 2008. Investors feared the crackdown of Chinese regulators on tech companies. Figure 2 shows valuations of Chinese companies listed in Hong Kong and in the US. Not only, are Chinese tech companies strongly undervalued compared to US tech stocks. Furthermore, Chinese tech companies listed in the US are even stronger undervalued, as very few even reach a multiple of 5, as shown in Figure 2.