Preparing for 2022, when the only certainty is uncertainty

The stock market doesn’t view a calendar year any differently from all the other 365-day periods, but January is as good a time as any to look back and learn. If this quieter time provides the opportunity to try and become a better investor, then why not?

I’ve just run the numbers for 2021 to see what we can glean from the performance of the most important asset classes and stock market regions last year. The first thing that struck me was the wide dispersion of returns, from plus 55% to -5%. Where you put your money last year mattered a great deal.

If I were inclined to use my analysis as the basis for an investing New Year’s Resolution, it would be something along the lines of the famous prayer: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

Last year’s mixture of predictable and unexpected outcomes was a salutary reminder that none of us has the benefit of a crystal ball when it comes to the markets. It all looks reasonable with the benefit of hindsight but that’s not something investors get to enjoy. Serenity, courage and wisdom are all required. A dash of humility too.

So, what might reasonably have been predicted a year ago? The top-performing asset in my analysis (forgive me, I excluded Bitcoin because quite frankly I haven’t a clue) was oil. It was probably not rocket science to expect a recovery in the oil price as economies re-opened and people tentatively started to get back on the move again. If anything was unexpected it was simply the scale of the rebound. The 55% gain knocked everything else into a cocked hat.

Less obvious last January was the way in which ‘dirty’ energy stocks should significantly outperform investments focused on environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors. A couple of lessons here. First, valuations matter. There is an inverse correlation between the popularity of an investment and its probable future returns. Second, there’s nothing quite so attractive to investors as something that’s already heading higher. Momentum is a powerful force in the markets.

The underperformance of bonds last year will not have surprised too many people. The small negative total return from government bonds was a natural consequence of the big macro-economic development of 2021, the return of inflation. Rising prices are kryptonite to bonds. They eat into the value of their fixed income and fixed capital return at maturity. And they prompt rising interest rates.

The prospect of tighter monetary policy goes some way to explaining the negative returns from emerging market shares last year. Rising US interest rates are bad news for governments, companies and households in the developing world with dollar-denominated borrowings. Emerging markets never do well at this point in the cycle.

Elsewhere in the equity markets, the outperformance of Wall Street will also not have surprised many, even if its total return of nearly 30% did. Put simply, it is where the growth is. And markets broadly follow corporate earnings. It may be the most expensive stock market, but in a world with few certainties we have been able to rely on the performance of American companies, and notably the technology titans that dominate the US stock market.

So far, so predictable. The more interesting questions arise from the assets which performed unexpectedly well or badly in 2021. This is where the real lessons can be learned.

The second-best performance in my analysis came from commercial real estate as measured by a global REIT index. Property delivered a total return of 35% last year, something that would have seemed inconceivable as vaccines were just starting to be rolled out, we were entering what ended up being a three and a half month lock down and with real estate prices already at a historically elevated level on the basis of their rental yields. Property has the look of a TINA investment today. In a low interest rate environment, in which bonds are offering a return-free risk, perhaps There Is No Alternative.

At the other end of the performance table, both Japan and China surprised in different ways. It would have been reasonable to assume that Japan would benefit from a re-awakening global economy. It is a cyclical market that usually thrives when activity picks up around the world. But its bungled Covid response and political uncertainty left it near the back of the stock market pack. The case for China a year ago focused on it being first in and first out of the pandemic but it has shot itself in the foot on three fronts: trying to eliminate rather than live with Covid; pursuing social engineering at the expense of economic growth; and taking its eye off the property ball as evidenced by the Evergrande fiasco.

The final dog that didn’t bark last year was gold. The precious metal has always been a safe-haven in times of uncertainty and especially when inflation begins to stir. In an environment of negative real interest rates, gold might have been expected to shine in 2021 but it lost its lustre to other commodities and notably to Bitcoin.

So, 2021 was a year of divergent, and ultimately unpredictable, investment outcomes. The only certainty last year was uncertainty. And that should give fair warning to those of us with the audacity at this time of year to make predictions about the 12 months ahead. Be humble. Diversify. Be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.

Tom Stevenson is an investment director at Fidelity International. The views are his own. He tweets at @tomstevenson63.