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Markets finish on a high note despite central bank pivot

January 10, 2022
clock 7 MIN READ

Sky-high COVID-19 cases, a volatile equity-market rally, and worry over rising interest rates can describe both the first and last weeks of 2021. An obvious difference between those two timeframes is that the prospect of widespread vaccination became reality, dealing a sharp blow to the severity of illness among the infected. A towering nine billion vaccine doses were administered worldwide through the end of 2021, rendering roughly 49% of the global population fully vaccinated2.

Turning to financial markets, the fourth quarter began in the shadow of September’s selloff, which was the most extended shakeout of 2021. After recovering in October, equities vaulted higher through mid-November before unrestrained inflation, tightening central-bank policy and the emergence of the Omicron variant combined for a choppy climb to finish the year.

US shares were the top-performing major market for the fourth quarter and the full calendar year. The UK and Europe also performed quite well over both time frames. Hong Kong and Japan had significant losses in the three-month period; Japan was up modestly in 2021, while Hong Kong had a full-year decline. Brazil and China were down steeply for the quarter and the year, with China delivering the deepest loss among major markets in 20211.

Across the UK, eurozone and US, short-to-medium-term government bond rates increased during the fourth quarter, while long-term rates declined, resulting in flatter yield curves.

Within fixed interest, fourth-quarter performance mirrored the full year: inflation-indexed bonds were the top performers, followed by high yield. Most other sectors were mildly negative given the impact of rising rates, but global bonds were down by more due to currency effects. Local-currency emerging-market debt had the steepest losses for the quarter and year.

The US dollar continued to strengthen against most other currencies during the fourth quarter, capping off a 6.7% full-year increase according to the US Dollar Index (DXY). Commodity prices were dealt a minor setback in the fourth quarter after a steep ascent for the first nine months of 2021. The Bloomberg Commodity Index declined 1.6% during the quarter but gained 21.1% for the full year.

The UK government’s autumn budget traded improved benefits for tax increases3. It proposed a reduction in the universal credit taper rate for low-income workers (from 63% to 55%, meaning that the credit will phase out more slowly) and an annual £500 increase in work allowances. Brick-and-mortar stores will also see more relief via a temporary 50% cut in business rates and no increase in 2022. On the revenue side, a 1.25% bump in national insurance contributions was scheduled to begin in the spring, and a long-telegraphed increase in the corporation tax remained set for 2023.

Germany’s new governing coalition came together in late November. The centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) secured 25.7% of ballots cast in the September election, while the progressive environmentalist Greens won 14.8% and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) received 11.5% of the votes. As of December, SPD leader Olaf Scholz heads the government as chancellor, while FDP leader Christian Lindner serves as finance minister.

The coalition has coalesced around an ambitious series of climate-centric policy pledges, including new commercial and residential construction that host solar-power production capabilities; additional support for seaborne wind farms; and a targeted 15 million electric vehicles in service by 2030 along with the necessary charging infrastructure. The German housing market is also set to benefit from the coalition’s plan to build 400,000 new apartments per year, with one-quarter of the project financed by government funds. However, questions have been raised about how the government will fund its goals given that Germany’s “debt brake” will be re-instated in 2023 (limiting government borrowing to 0.35% of GDP) and that the FDP extracted a commitment to refrain from imposing new or increased taxes (in order to join the coalition).

The US Congress voted to raise the debt ceiling (that is, the federal government’s borrowing limit) twice during the fourth quarter—first with an October stopgap hike of $480 billion, and then with a December increase of $2.5 trillion—which is expected to cover spending through early 2023.

US President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—a multi-year infrastructure funding bill—into law during November4. The initiative appropriated $1.2 trillion (including $550 billion above baseline spending), with nearly $300 billion of new spending to fund transportation projects over the next decade, another $65 billion apiece dedicated to broadband internet and power grid projects, and $55 billion reserved for water infrastructure.

In China, while Evergrande dominated concerns about the viability of real estate companies earlier in 2021, Fantasia Holdings Group—a much smaller developer—defaulted on a $206 million bond payment at the beginning of October. Evergrande held out until December before defaulting along with Kaisa, another large developer. The Chinese government appeared to support a plan for Evergrande to negotiate reduced repayments on its offshore bonds with international creditors.

Following its annual Central Economic Work Conference in December, Beijing stated that its top priority for 2022 would centre on economic stabilisation with a heavy focus on financial restraint.

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1According to the performance of the country-level components of the MSCI ACWI Index.
2“Covid vaccines: How fast is progress around the world?” BBC News. 30 December 2021.
3“Autumn Budget 2021: Key points at-a-glance.” BBC News. 27 October 2021
4“H.R.3684 - Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.” Congress.gov. 15 November 2021.

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