With the completion of the fourth quarter of 2020 corporate earnings releases, investors are monitoring daily COVID headlines, rising interest rates, and the potential for a new stimulus program. Corporate earnings were mostly better than expected and guidance for the year ahead was surprisingly strong.
The S&P 500 Index was down 1% in January based on investors’ revised expectations of corporate revenue growth and earnings. First, the COVID-19 vaccine distribution and inoculation process is proceeding slowly while the virus is mutating. The new strains appear to be slightly more virulent and the vaccination timeline will take longer and delay economic normalization.
2020 was an unusual and volatile one with the S&P 500 Index’s 34% decline in 30 days in March followed by a retracement and rise of over 16% by year-end. This proved once again that a longer-term outlook is required in successful equity investing.
The S&P 500 and Nasdaq index had wonderful performance during the third quarter, with returns of 8.5% and 11%, respectively. However, pre-election politics obstructing a new federal stimulus package and an escalation in COVID cases caused both indexes to decline in September.
Despite the concerns about strained relations with China, increased COVID infections, social protests, weaker earnings, high U.S. unemployment and the November election, the S&P 500 Index is up 1% for the year while the Nasdaq Index is up 19.7%. The increasing spread of the virus is suppressing a healthy economic recovery as consumers and businesses remain conservative in their spending.
Investors reconsidered the emotionally-oversold market in the month of April and bravely pushed the market higher by 12.7% even before news about the virus infection curve flattening. Since the “shelter-at-home” policies have reduced the infection rate, government policymakers are announcing dates for re-opening the economy.
I wanted to write a note to you about the tremendous first quarter market volatility and the 20% S&P 500 Index decline. This “waterfall” decline was the worst since the 2008 Great Recession and was particularly unusual since the market was trading at an all-time high on Feb. 19. The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event elevating fear and uncertainty, but it is a transitory event for the markets and the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, we hope you please practice social distancing and stay safe.
The equity and fixed income markets are experiencing unprecedented volatility and fear about the coronavirus. This is a health crisis that has evolved into a financial challenge for policy makers as they attempt to suppress the spread of the virus while not closing down the economy entirely. Unfortunately, the only way to deter the spread of the virus is to reduce or close transportation and impose a quarantine. Since the only way we know to limit the number of infections is to reduce social interaction, we expect more states will join California, Illinois and New York in a “lock down.” For a historical comparison in 2009-2010 the H1N1 “Swine-Flu” virus infected 60 million Americans and killed 12,500, and yet the panic was not as prevalent.
During the month of November, the S&P 500 Index jumped 11% on the expectation of improving economic conditions next year. The index is signaling that the U.S. will reach economic normalization in 2021 due to the development of several COVID vaccines, a likely deferment of further trade wars, a potential stimulus package, and a divided government.
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