What happens when one ESG priority comes into conflict with another? This week we examine a chart from the World Resources Institute (www.wri.org) of data from the Servicio de Información Agroalimentaria y Pesquera chronicling a decade of growth in avocado production in Mexico. Avocados play on ESG themes of healthy eating, job creation and economic opportunity. Unfortunately, the explosion of consumption, primarily in the US as a result of NAFTA, of Mexican avocados has fueled deforestation, draining of aquifers, soil degradation, increased CO2 emissions, threatens indigenous species and even triggers small earthquakes. According to various studies assembled by the World Economic Forum, avocado groves consume multiples of the water of indigenous forest, and the fruit has an end-point carbon emissions footprint many times that of bananas. As with other monocultures like palm in Indonesia, avocado has brought economic opportunity to areas that badly need it like Michoacán province, but at a profound and unsustainable cost. Conscientious consumption and deploying capital to find more sustainable methods of cultivation without depriving Michoacán of needed money and opportunity are examples of where ESG is headed to address whole-systems challenges rather than focusing narrowly on single issues or ideas.
As the sun sets on 2020, we want to extend our gratitude and appreciation for our amazing clients, partners, vendors, friends and colleagues. It was quite a ride, and we are thankful to have taken it with you. We will take a break from the weekly charts to leave room for both celebration and contemplation about the challenges and opportunities in front of all of us in the new year. Wishing everyone a terrific holiday season, and a happy, HEALTHY, and prosperous new year. The COTW will return in January!
European equities have been rallying yet continue to lag the US and the rest of the world. Since global equities found their pandemic-induced bottom on March 23rd, both the S&P 500 and the MSCI World Indices have rallied over 65% as of last week’s closing levels (12/18/2020) while European shares have climbed just over 60% measured in US dollar terms. While a 60% recovery in approximately three quarters is impressive, it is masked due to currency movement over the period. The Eurostoxx 600 itself has climbed 44% in local currency terms from March 23rd through Friday’s close, and the Euro has rallied over 17% since March 23rd. The disparity in performance suggests a few things to us. First, European investors may have less confidence in their stock markets due to a lack of forceful coordinated continental response to the pandemic. Second, the currency tailwinds for European shares reflect more of a “retreat” from the pandemic flight-to-safe-haven currencies like the Dollar than true economic resiliency. Finally, we are particularly mindful that other stock markets beyond Europe may offer superior growth prospects, which would be especially attractive in a low-growth developed West.
This week we are in the midst of examining the likelihood of a pandemic-induced housing crisis and its effects on families, the economy, and markets. As we learned during the Financial Crisis, it is a very slow process to foreclose on a mortgagee and remove them from a home, particularly when there is a massive backlog of borrowers in similar circumstances. Renters, on the other hand, are more immediately vulnerable to eviction and subsequent homelessness. This week’s chart from econofact.org illustrates the percentage of households suffering a moderate or extreme cost-burden of rent (30% to 50% of income) by household income tier. These observations are pre-COVID, so we can reasonably expect this picture to be much worse in 2020. Government-issued moratoria on evictions kept people in their homes but also shifted the economic burden to the literal doorstep of landlords, many of whom are small businesses. As those edicts roll off but the pandemic still rages in the coming months, landlords will of necessity pursue their economic and business interests and housing insecurity will jump. Whether it is on the backs of the landlords or the renters, the social and economic consequences of this income and housing crisis will play out in our communities, in the real economy and in the investment markets for some time to come.
Beyond the rosy headlines of a strong economic recovery and a rally of over 40% in the Shanghai Shenzhen CSI 300 Index from the depths of the pandemic, trouble may be brewing in China’s bond markets. Total debt in China was approaching 325% of GDP in 2019, a point that economies generally struggle. The largest segment of total debt growth from 2018 to 2019 was in the corporate sector, which rose from 165% to 205% of GDP. China’s 2019 corporate debt binge appears to have hit a wall. According to Chinese media reports as much as 69% of private enterprises have defaulted on their outstanding loans so far in 2020 and the festering crisis may impact local governments and state enterprises as well. Further deterioration in the Chinese financial system would obviously have negative implications for the rest of the world.
US equity markets have rallied strongly in the days following the national elections. According to Bloomberg, the S&P 500 delivered its largest day-after-election gain in history — 2.2%. This may seem perplexing because the outcome of the presidential election and even some congressional seats are yet to be finalized and markets generally fear uncertainty. It appears that Democrats will maintain control of the House of Representatives and the Senate will remain under Republican leadership while both majorities will likely be less dominant. The Electoral College does not cast its 538 votes until the first Monday following the second Wednesday in December (Dec. 14, 2020), and a lot of work is yet to be done and lawsuits to be filed in battle ground states between now and then. In light of the political uncertainty the positive tone in US equity markets can be explained by several factors.
First, the balance in Congress is likely to lead to no drastic change in US tax rates as any proposed increase would stall in the Senate. The same would likely result from any major proposed change to US energy policy. Markets generally respond favorably to policy certainty, or at least stability. Second, another round of stimulus will likely be delivered at some point before the end of the year. This tranche of spending or relief will likely be more targeted to the areas of the economy most impacted by the deadly effects of COVID-19. Meanwhile the Fed will remain accommodative. Markets thrive with generous stimulus. Third, the US economy is rapidly recovering. As many expected, the US economy rebounded strongly in the third quarter, exceeding economists’ forecasts. The BEA reported GDP grew at a 33.1% annualized rate while the consensus estimates stood at 32.0% prior to the announcement. Finally, the labor market continues to improve with October employment posted as a +638,000 change in payrolls and unemployment falling to 6.9%, both better than consensus expectations.