These 6 Powerful Signals Reveal the Future Direction of Financial Markets
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These 6 Powerful Signals Reveal the Future Direction of Financial Markets

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Powerful signals reveal the future direction of financial markets

Every day, the Information Age bombards us with massive amounts of data.

Experts now estimate that there are 40 times more bytes of data in existence than there are stars in the whole observable universe.

And like the universe, our datasphere is also rapidly expanding—and every few years, there is actually more new data created than in all prior years of human history combined.

Searching for Signals

On a practical level, this dense wall of impenetrable data creates a multitude of challenges for investors and decision makers alike:

  • It’s mentally taxing to process all the available information out there
  • Too much data can lead to “analysis paralysis”—an inability to make decisions
  • Misinformation and media slant add another layer for our brains to process
  • Our personal biases get reinforced by news algorithms and filter bubbles
  • Data sources—even quality ones—can sometimes conflict with one another

As a result, it’s clear that people don’t want more data—they want more understanding. And for this reason, our team at Visual Capitalist has spent most of 2020 sifting through the noise to find the underlying trends that will transform society and markets over the coming years.

The end result of this effort is our new hardcover book “SIGNALS: Charting the New Direction of the Global Economy” (hardcover, ebook) which beautifully illustrates 27 clear signals in fields ranging from investing to geopolitics.

The 6 Signals Shaping the Future of Finance

What clear and simple trends will shape the future of markets?

Below, we show you a small selection of the hundreds of charts found in the book with a focus on global finance and investing:

#1: 700 Years of Falling Interest Rates

The first signal we’ll showcase here is from an incredible dataset from the Bank of England, which reconstructs global real interest rates going back all the way to the 14th century.

Falling real interest rates over 700 years

Some of the first data points in this series represent well-documented municipal debt issued in early Italian banking centers like Genoa, Florence, or Venice, during the beginning stages of the Italian Renaissance.

The early data sets of loans to noblemen, merchants, and kingdoms eventually merge with more contemporary data from central banks, and over the centuries it’s clear that falling interest rates are not a new phenomenon. In fact, on average, real rates have decreased by 1.6 basis points (0.016%) per year since the 14th century.

This same spectacle can also be seen in more modern time stretches:

Contemporary interest rates by country

And as the world reels from the COVID-19 crisis, governments are taking advantage of record-low rates to issue more debt and stimulate the economy.

This brings us to our next signal.

#2: Global Debt: To $258 Trillion and Beyond

The ongoing pandemic certainly made analysis trickier for some signals, but easier for others.

The accumulation of global debt falls into the latter category: as of Q1 2020, global debt sits at a record $258 trillion or 331% of world GDP, and it’s projected to rise sharply as a result of fiscal stimulus, falling tax revenues, and increasing budget deficits.

Rising Global Debt

The above chart takes into consideration consumer, corporate, and government debt—but let’s just zoom in on government debt for a moment.

The below data, which is from early 2020, shows government debt ballooning between 2007 and early 2020 as a percentage of GDP.

Ballooning government debt

This chart does not include intragovernmental debt or new debt taken on after the start of the pandemic. Despite this, the percentage increase in debt held by some of these governments is in the triple digits over a period of only 13 years, including the 233% increase in the United States.

But it’s not just governments going on a borrowing spree. The following chart shows consumer debt over a recent four-year span, sorted by generation:

Average household debt by generation

While Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation are successfully winding down some of their debt, younger generations are just getting aboard the debt train.

Between 2015-2019, Millennials added 58% to household debt, while Gen Xers find themselves (in the middle of their mortgage-paying years) as the most indebted generation with $135,841 of debt per household.

#3: Blue Chips and the Circle of Life

There was a time when it seemed absolutely unfathomable that large, entrenched companies could see their corporate advantages slide away.

But as the recent collapses of Blockbuster, Lehman Brothers, Kodak, or various retailers have taught us, there are no longer any guarantees around corporate longevity.

Average company lifespan on S&P 500

In 1964, the average tenure of a company on the S&P 500 was 33 years, but this is projected to fall to an average of just 12 years by the year 2027 according to consulting firm Innosight.

At this churn rate, it’s expected that 50% of the S&P 500 could turnover between 2018-2027.

Churn of S&P 500 companies

For established companies, this is a sign of the times. Between the rapid acceleration in the speed of innovation and continuously falling barriers to market entry, the traditional corporate world finds itself playing defense.

For investors and startups, this is an interesting prospect to consider, as disruption now appears to be the status quo. Could the next big company to dominate global markets be found in someone’s garage in India today?

If you like this post, find hundreds of charts
like this in our new book “Signals”:


Signals: Book

#4: ESG is the New Status Quo

The investment universe has reached an interesting tipping point.

Historically, performance was all the mattered to most investors—but going forward, considering ESG criteria (environment, social, and governance) is expected to become a default component of investment strategy as well.

Esg assets as percentage of total

By the year 2030, it’s expected that a whopping 95% of all assets will incorporate ESG factors.

While this still seems far away, it’s clear that change is already happening in the investment sphere. As you can see in the following graphic, the percentage of ESG assets has already been rising by trillions of dollars per year globally:

Sustainable investing assets esg

If you think this is a powerful trend now, wait until Millennials and Gen Z investors sink in their teeth. Both generations show a higher interest in sustainable investing, and both are already more likely to incorporate ESG factors into existing portfolios.

Projected aggregate income by generation

Companies are getting in front of the ESG investing trend, as well.

In 2011, just 20% of companies on the S&P 500 provided sustainability reports to investors. In 2019, that percentage rose to 90%—and with the world’s biggest asset managers already on board with ESG, there’s pressure for that to hit 100% in the coming years.

#5: Stock Market Concentration

In the last 40 years, the U.S. market has never been so concentrated as it is now.

Big tech five stocks as a percentage of S&P 500

The top five stocks in the S&P 500 have historically made up less than 15% of the market capitalization of the index, but this year the percentage has skyrocketed to 23%.

Not surprisingly, it’s the same companies—led by Apple and Microsoft—that propelled market performance the previous year.

Tech stocks by percentage of 2019 stock market return

Looking back at the top five companies in the S&P 500 over time helps reveal an important component of this signal, which is that it’s only a recent phenomenon for tech stocks to dominate the market so heavily.

Tech stocks each year

#6: Central Banks: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Since the financial crisis, central banks have found themselves to be in a tricky situation.

As interest rates close in on the zero bound, their usual toolkit of conventional policy options has dried up. Traditionally, lowering rates has encouraged borrowing and spending to prop up the economy, but once rates get ultra-low this effect disappears or even reverses.

Treasury yields vs. household spending

The pandemic has forced the hand of central banks to act in less conventional ways.

Quantitative easing (QE)—first used extensively by the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank after the financial crisis—has now become the go-to tool for central banks. By buying long-term securities on the open market, the goal is to increase money supply and encourage lending and investment.

In Japan, where QE has been a mainstay since the late-1990s, the Bank of Japan now owns 80% of ETF assets and roughly 8% of the domestic equity market.

Central bank assets rising

As banks “print money” to buy more assets, their balance sheets rise concurrently. This year, the Fed has already added over $3.5 trillion to the U.S. money supply (M2) as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, and there’s still likely much more to be done.

Regardless of how the monetary policy experiment turns out, it’s clear that this and many of the other aforementioned signals will be key drivers for the future of markets and investing.

If you like this post, find hundreds of charts
like this in our new book “Signals”:


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All of the World’s Money and Markets in One Visualization (2022)

From the wealth held to billionaires to all debt in the global financial system, we look at the vast universe of money and markets in 2022.

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All of the World’s Money and Markets in One Visualization

The era of easy money is now officially over.

For 15 years, policymakers have tried to stimulate the global economy through money creation, zero interest-rate policies, and more recently, aggressive COVID fiscal stimulus.

With capital at near-zero costs over this stretch, investors started to place more value on cash flows in the distant future. Assets inflated and balance sheets expanded, and money inevitably chased more speculative assets like NFTs, crypto, or unproven venture-backed startups.

But the free money party has since ended, after persistent inflation prompted the sudden reversal of many of these policies. And as Warren Buffett says, it’s only when the tide goes out do you get to see “who’s been swimming naked.”

Measuring Money and Markets in 2022

Every time we publish this visualization, our common unit of measurement is a two-dimensional box with a value of $100 billion.

Even though you need many of these to convey the assets on the balance sheet of the U.S. Federal Reserve, or the private wealth held by the world’s billionaires, it’s quite amazing to think what actually fits within this tiny building block of measurement:

What fits in a $100 billion box?

Our little unit of measurement is enough to pay for the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, while also buying every team in the NHL and digging FTX out of its financial hole several times over.

Here’s an overview of all the items we have listed in this year’s visualization:

Asset categoryValueSourceNotes
SBF (Peak Net Worth)$26 billionBloombergNow sits at <$1B
Pro Sports Teams$340 billionForbesMajor pro teams in North America
Cryptocurrency$760 billionCoinMarketCapPeaked at $2.8T in 2021
Ukraine GDP$130 billionWorld BankComparable to GDP of Mississippi
Russia GDP$1.8 trillionWorld BankThe world's 11th largest economy
Annual Military Spending$2.1 trillionSIPRI2021 data
Physical currency$8.0 trillionBIS2020 data
Gold$11.5 trillionWorld Gold CouncilThere are 205,238 tonnes of gold in existence
Billionaires$12.7 trillionForbesSum of fortunes of all 2,668 billionaires
Central Bank Assets$28.0 trillionTrading EconomicsFed, BoJ, Bank of China, and Eurozone only
S&P 500$36.0 trillionSlickchartsNov 20, 2022
China GDP$17.7 trillionWorld Bank
U.S. GDP$23.0 trillionWorld Bank
Narrow Money Supply$49.0 trillionTrading EconomicsIncludes US, China, Euro Area, Japan only
Broad Money Supply $82.7 trillionTrading EconomicsIncludes US, China, Euro Area, Japan only
Global Equities$95.9 trillionWFELatest available 2022 data
Global Debt$300.1 trillionIIFQ2 2022
Global Real Estate$326.5 trillionSavills2020 data
Global Private Wealth$463.6 trillionCredit Suisse2022 report
Derivatives (Market)$12.4 trillionBIS
Derivatives (Notional)$600 trillionBIS

Has the Dust Settled Yet?

Through previous editions of our All the World’s Money and Markets visualization, we’ve created snapshots of the world’s assets and markets at different points in time.

For example, in our 2017 edition of this visualization, Apple’s market capitalization was only $807 billion, and all crypto assets combined for $173 billion. The global debt total was at $215 trillion.

Asset2017 edition2022 editionChange (%)
Apple market cap$807 billion$2.3 trillion+185%
Crypto$173 billion$760 billion+339%
Fed Balance Sheet$4.5 trillion$8.7 trillion+93%
Stock Markets$73 trillion$95.9 trillion+31%
Global Debt$215 trillion$300 trillion+40%

And in just five years, Apple nearly quadrupled in size (it peaked at $3 trillion in January 2022), and crypto also expanded into a multi-trillion dollar market until it was brought back to Earth through the 2022 crash and subsequent FTX implosion.

Meanwhile, global debt continues to accumulate—growing by $85 trillion in the five-year period.

With interest rates expected to continue to rise, companies making cost cuts, and policymakers reining in spending and borrowing, today is another unique snapshot in time.

Now that the easy money era is over, where do things go from here?

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Ranked: The World’s 100 Biggest Pension Funds

The world’s 100 largest pension funds are worth over $17 trillion in total. Which ones are the biggest, and where are they located?

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A preview image of some of the largest pension funds in the world. The Government Pension Investment Fund in Japan is the biggest at $1.7 trillion in assets.

Ranked: The World’s 100 Biggest Pension Funds

View the high-resolution of the infographic by clicking here.

Despite economic uncertainty, pension funds saw relatively strong growth in 2021. The world’s 100 biggest pension funds are worth over $17 trillion in total, an increase of 8.5% over the previous year.

This graphic uses data from the Thinking Ahead Institute to rank the world’s biggest pension funds, and where they are located.

What is a Pension Fund?

A pension fund is a fund that is designed to provide retirement income. This ranking covers four different types:

  • Sovereign funds: Funds controlled directly by the state. This ranking only includes sovereign funds that are established by national authorities.
  • Public sector funds: Funds that cover public sector workers, such as government employees and teachers, in provincial or state sponsored plans.
  • Private independent funds: Funds controlled by private sector organizations that are authorized to manage pension plans from different employers.
  • Corporate funds: Funds that cover workers in company sponsored pension plans.

Among the largest funds, public sector funds are the most common.

The Largest Pension Funds, Ranked

Here are the top 100 pension funds, organized from largest to smallest.

RankFundMarketTotal Assets
1Government Pension Investment Fund🇯🇵 Japan$1.7T
2Government Pension Fund🇳🇴 Norway$1.4T
3National Pension🇰🇷 South Korea$798.0B
4Federal Retirement Thrift🇺🇸 U.S.$774.2B
5ABP🇳🇱 Netherlands$630.4B
6California Public Employees🇺🇸 U.S.$496.8B
7Canada Pension🇨🇦 Canada$426.7B
8National Social Security🇨🇳 China$406.8B
9Central Provident Fund🇸🇬 Singapore$375.0B
10PFZW🇳🇱 Netherlands$315.5B
11California State Teachers🇺🇸 U.S.$313.9B
12New York State Common🇺🇸 U.S.$267.8B
13New York City Retirement🇺🇸 U.S.$266.7B
14Local Government Officials🇯🇵 Japan$248.6B
15Employees Provident Fund🇲🇾 Malaysia$242.6B
16Florida State Board🇺🇸 U.S.$213.8B
17Texas Teachers🇺🇸 U.S.$196.7B
18Ontario Teachers🇨🇦 Canada$191.1B
19National Wealth Fund🇷🇺 Russia$180.7B
20AustralianSuper🇦🇺 Australia$169.1B
21Labor Pension Fund🇹🇼 Taiwan$168.9B
22Washington State Board🇺🇸 U.S.$161.5B
23Public Institute for Social Security🇰🇼 Kuwait$160.0B
24ATP🇩🇰 Denmark$155.4B
25Wisconsin Investment Board🇺🇸 U.S.$147.9B
26Future Fund🇦🇺 Australia$147.9B
27Boeing🇺🇸 U.S.$147.2B
28Employees' Provident🇮🇳 India$145.0B
29New York State Teachers🇺🇸 U.S.$144.4B
30North Carolina🇺🇸 U.S.$137.1B
31Alecta🇸🇪 Sweden$136.7B
32GEPF🇿🇦 South Africa$129.1B
33California University🇺🇸 U.S.$125.3B
34Bayerische Versorgungskammer🇩🇪 Germany$122.0B
35Ohio Public Employees🇺🇸 U.S.$121.6B
36AT&T🇺🇸 U.S.$119.5B
37Public Service Pension Plan🇨🇦 Canada$117.9B
38National Federation of Mutual Aid🇯🇵 Japan$117.1B
39Metaal/tech. Bedrijven🇳🇱 Netherlands$115.8B
40IBM🇺🇸 U.S.$115.4B
41Universities Superannuation🇬🇧 UK$111.2B
42Virginia Retirement🇺🇸 U.S.$110.0B
43Pension Fund Association🇯🇵 Japan$109.8B
44Raytheon Technologies🇺🇸 U.S.$108.9B
45Michigan Retirement🇺🇸 U.S.$108.0B
46Aware Super🇦🇺 Australia$107.5B
47New Jersey🇺🇸 U.S.$104.5B
48Minnesota State Board🇺🇸 U.S.$102.9B
49PFA Pension🇩🇰 Denmark$102.7B
50Kaiser🇺🇸 U.S.$101.0B
51Georgia Teachers🇺🇸 U.S.$100.9B
52Oregon Public Employees🇺🇸 U.S.$100.4B
53Massachusetts PRIM🇺🇸 U.S.$98.5B
54Qsuper🇦🇺 Australia$96.5B
55General Motors🇺🇸 U.S.$96.1B
56Ontario Municipal Employees🇨🇦 Canada$95.7B
57Ohio State Teachers🇺🇸 U.S.$95.1B
58AP Fonden 7🇸🇪 Sweden$94.4B
59Healthcare of Ontario🇨🇦 Canada$90.5B
60General Electric🇺🇸 U.S.$90.5B
61Employees' Pension Fund🇮🇳 India$89.5B
62Bouwnijverheid🇳🇱 Netherlands$88.5B
63UPS🇺🇸 U.S.$86.8B
64United Nations Joint Staff🇺🇸 U.S.$86.2B
65Lockheed Martin🇺🇸 U.S.$85.7B
66Quebec Pension🇨🇦 Canada$81.4B
67National Public Service🇯🇵 Japan$79.9B
68Tennessee Consolidated🇺🇸 U.S.$79.0B
69Royal Bank of Scotland Group🇬🇧 UK$78.3B
70Bank of America🇺🇸 U.S.$76.3B
71BT Group🇬🇧 UK$74.3B
72Keva🇫🇮 Finland$73.3B
73Ford🇺🇸 U.S.$72.8B
74PME🇳🇱 Netherlands$72.7B
75Los Angeles County Employees🇺🇸 U.S.$72.7B
76Quebec Government & Public🇨🇦 Canada$72.4B
77UniSuper🇦🇺 Australia$72.1B
78Northrop Grumman🇺🇸 U.S.$72.0B
79Pennsylvania School Employees🇺🇸 U.S.$70.4B
80Lloyds Banking Group🇬🇧 UK$69.7B
81Ilmarinen🇫🇮 Finland$69.1B
82Colorado Employees🇺🇸 U.S.$68.6B
83Maryland State Retirement🇺🇸 U.S.$68.5B
84AMF Pension🇸🇪 Sweden$67.3B
85Varma🇫🇮 Finland$67.1B
86Wells Fargo🇺🇸 U.S.$66.0B
87Sunsuper🇦🇺 Australia$66.0B
88Verizon🇺🇸 U.S.$64.1B
89Illinois Teachers🇺🇸 U.S.$64.0B
90J.P. Morgan Chase🇺🇸 U.S.$62.8B
91Electricity Supply Pension🇬🇧 UK$62.5B
92FedEx🇺🇸 U.S.$60.7B
93Nevada Public Employees🇺🇸 U.S.$58.8B
94B.C. Municipal🇨🇦 Canada$58.7B
95AP Fonden 4🇸🇪 Sweden$57.7B
96Missouri Schools & Education🇺🇸 U.S.$57.0B
97AP Fonden 3🇸🇪 Sweden$55.9B
98Social Insurance Funds🇻🇳 Vietnam$55.7B
99Organization for Workers🇯🇵 Japan$55.6B
100Illinois Municipal🇺🇸 U.S.$54.9B

U.S. fund data are as of Sep. 30, 2021, and non-U.S. fund data are as of Dec. 31, 2021. There are some exceptions as noted in the graphic footnotes.

Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF) is the largest in the ranking for the 21st year in a row. For a time, the fund was the largest holder of domestic stocks in Japan, though the Bank of Japan has since taken that title. Given its enormous size, investors closely follow the GPIF’s actions. For instance, the fund made headlines for deciding to start investing in startups, because the move could entice other pensions to make similar investments.

America is home to 47 funds on the list, including the largest public sector fund: the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), overseen by the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board. Because of its large financial influence, both political parties have been accused of using it as a political tool. Democrats have pushed to divest assets in fossil fuel companies, while Republicans have proposed blocking investment in Chinese-owned companies.

Russia’s National Wealth Fund comes in at number 19 on the list. The fund is designed to support the public pension system and help balance the budget as needed. With Russia’s economy facing difficulties amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the government has also used it as a rainy day fund. For instance, Russia has set aside $23 billion from the fund to replace foreign aircraft with domestic models, because Western sanctions have made it difficult to source replacement parts for foreign planes.

The Future of Pension Funds

The biggest pension funds can have a large influence in the market because of their size. Of course, they are also responsible for providing retirement income to millions of people. Pension funds face a variety of challenges in order to reach their goals:

  • Geopolitical conflict creates volatility and uncertainty
  • High inflation and low interest rates (relative to long-term averages) limit return potential
  • Aging populations mean more withdrawals and less fund contributions

Some pension funds are turning to alternative assets, such as private equity, in pursuit of more diversification and higher returns. Of course, these investments can also carry more risk.

Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, number 18 on the list, invested $95 million in the now-bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange FTX. The plan made the investment through its venture growth platform, to “gain small-scale exposure to an emerging area in the financial technology sector.”

In this case, the investment’s failure is expected to have a minimal impact given it only made up 0.05% of the plan’s net assets. However, it does highlight the challenges pension funds face to generate sufficient returns in a variety of macroeconomic environments.

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