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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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Investor Education

Fact Check: The Truth Behind Five ESG Myths

ESG investing continues to break fund inflow records. In this infographic, we unpack five common ESG myths.

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ESG Myths

Fact Check: The Truth Behind 5 ESG Myths

In 2021, investors continue to embrace environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investments at record levels.

In the first quarter of 2021, global ESG fund inflows outpaced the last four consecutive quarters, reaching $2 trillion. But while ESG gains rapid momentum, the CFA Institute shows that 33% of professional investors surveyed feel they have insufficient knowledge for considering ESG issues.

To help investors understand this growing trend, this infographic from MSCI helps provide a fact check on five common ESG myths.

1. “ESG Comes at the Expense of Investment Performance”

Fact Check: Not necessarily

Worldwide, ESG-focused companies have not only seen higher returns, but stronger earnings growth and dividends.

Returns by ESG RatingsEarnings Growth*Active Return**Dividends and Buybacks
Top tier2.89%1.31%0.28%
Middle tier1.35%0.12%-0.02%
Bottom tier-9.22%-1.25%-0.05%

Source: MSCI ESG Research LLC (Dec, 2020)
*Contribution of earnings growth and dividends/buybacks to active return
**Active return is the additional gain or loss compared to it respective benchmark

In fact, a separate study from the CFA Institute shows that 35% of investment professionals invest in ESG to improve their financial returns.

2. “Investors Talk About ESG But Don’t Invest In It”

Fact Check: False

Global ESG assets under management (AUM) in ETFs have grown from $6 billion in 2015 to $150 billion in 2020. In just five years, ESG AUM have accelerated 25 times.

Today, money managers are focusing on the following top five issues:

Top ESG IssuesAssets AffectedGrowth in Assets Affected (2018-2020)
Climate change / carbon emissions $4.18T39%
Anti-corruption$2.44T10%
Board issues$2.39T66%
Sustainable natural resources / agriculture$2.38T81%
Executive pay$2.22T122%

Source: US SIF Foundation (Nov, 2020)

Meanwhile, over 1,500 shareholder resolutions focused on ESG-related matters were filed between 2018-2020. Not only are investors turning to ESG assets, but they are placing higher demands on corporate responsibility.

3. “ESG Investment Strategies Eliminate Entire Sectors”

Fact Check: Not necessarily

First, not all ESG investment approaches are exclusionary.

For instance, in North America roughly 51% of ESG ETFs used an ESG integration approach as of Dec. 31, 2020. In an ESG integration approach, ESG risks and opportunities are analyzed with the goal to support long-term returns.

By comparison, values and screens approaches, which accounted for over 22% of ESG ETFs in North America may screen out specific business activities, such as alcohol or tobacco, or sectors such as oil & gas.

Percentage of ESG TypeIntegrationValues & ScreensThematicImpact
North America50.9%22.5%20.7%5.9%
Asia57.8%34.6%3.8%3.8%
Europe30.8%60.6%8.6%0.0%
Australia28.6%71.4%0.0%0.0%

Source: Refinitiv/Lipper and MSCI ESG Research LLC as of Dec 31, 2020 (MSCI Feb, 2021)

Second, companies are assessed on a sector-specific basis where ESG leaders and laggards are identified within each sector in comparison to peers. In other words, ESG doesn’t mean eliminating exposure to entire sectors. Instead, investors can choose from a range of companies based on their ESG ratings quality.

4. “ESG Investing Is Only For Millennials”

Fact Check: False

Although ESG is popular among millennials, ESG investing is being driven by the entire investor population. In 2019, one study finds that 85% of the general population expressed interest in ESG investing.

Interest in Sustainable InvestingGeneral PopulationMillennials
201985%95%
201571%84%

Source: US SIF Foundation (Nov, 2020)

Sustainable investing goes far beyond millennials—ESG disclosures are quickly becoming requirements for key industry participants, such as institutional investors and listed companies.

5. “ESG Investing is Here to Stay”

Fact Check: True

Climbing 28% in 2020 alone, over 3,000 signatories have committed to the UN Principles of Responsible Investment. As of the first quarter of 2021, 313 global organizations and 33 asset owners have been newly added.

Growth of UN PRINumber of Signatories*AUM Represented
20203,038$103.4T
20192,370$86.3T

Source: UN PRI
*As of Mar, 2020

Central to ESG’s growth is the availability of ESG investments. ESG investing has become more widely accessible—which wasn’t always the case. Over the last decade, the global number of ESG ETFs has grown from 46 to 497.

Why the Facts Matter

As ESG investments continue to play an even greater role in investor portfolios, it’s important to focus on data rather than prevailing ESG myths that are not backed by fact.

Given the recent momentum in investment returns and ESG adoption, data-driven evidence empowers investors to build more sustainable portfolios that better align with their investment objectives.

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Markets

Visualizing the Recent Explosion in Lumber Prices

Lumber prices in the U.S. continue to break records as pressure from both the supply and demand sides of the market collide.

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Visualizing the Recent Explosion in Lumber Prices

Lumber is an important commodity used in construction, and refers to wood that has been processed into beams or planks.

Fluctuations in its price, which is typically quoted in USD/1,000 board feet (bd ft), can significantly affect the housing industry and in turn, influence the broader U.S. economy.

To understand the impact that lumber prices can have, we’ve visualized the number of homes that can be built with $50,000 worth of lumber, one year apart.

A Story of Supply and Demand

Before discussing the infographic above, it’s important to understand the market’s current environment.

In just one year, the price of lumber has increased 377%—reaching a record high of $1,635 per 1,000 bd ft. For context, lumber has historically fluctuated between $200 to $400.

To understand what’s driving lumber prices to new heights, let’s look at two economic elements: supply and demand.

Shortened Supply

U.S. lumber supplies came under pressure in April 2017, when the Trump administration raised tariffs on Canadian lumber. Since then, lumber imports have fallen and prices have experienced significant volatility.

After a brief stint above $600 in April 2018, lumber quickly tumbled down to sub $250 levels, causing a number of sawmills to shut down. The resulting decreases in production capacity (supply) were estimated to be around 3 billion board feet.

Once COVID-19 emerged, labor shortages cut production even further, making the lumber market incredibly sensitive to demand shocks. The U.S. government has since reduced its tariffs on Canadian lumber, but these measures appear to be an example of too little, too late.

Pent-up Demand

Against expectations, COVID-19 has led to a significant boom in housing markets, greatly increasing the need for lumber.

Lockdowns in early 2020 delayed many home purchases until later in the year, while increased savings rates during the pandemic meant Americans had more cash on hand. The demand for homes was further amplified by record-low mortgage rates across the country.

Existing homeowners needed lumber too, as many Americans suddenly found themselves requiring upgrades and renovations to accommodate their new stay-at-home lifestyles.

How Many Homes Can You Build With $50K of Lumber?

To see how burgeoning lumber prices are impacting the U.S. housing market, we’ve calculated the number of single family homes that could be built with $50,000 worth of lumber. First, we established the following parameters:

  • Lumber requirements: 6.3 board feet (bd ft) per square foot (sq ft)
  • Median single family house size: 2,301 sq ft
  • Total lumber required per single family house: 14,496 bd ft

Based on these parameters, here’s how many single family homes can be built with $50,000 worth of lumber:

Date*Lumber PriceTotal Lumber PurchasedTotal Homes Built
2021-05-05$1,635 per 1,000 bd ft30,581 bd ft2.11
2020-05-04$343 per 1,000 bd ft145,773 bd ft10.05
2015-05-01$234 per 1,000 bd ft213,675 bd ft14.74
2010-05-01$270 per 1,000 bd ft185,185 bd ft12.77

*Exact matching dates were not available for past years.
Source: Insider

As lumber prices continue to set record highs, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has reported that the cost to build a single family home has increased by $36,000. Most of this cost can be passed down to the consumer, but extremely tight supplies mean homebuilders are unable to start more projects.

The Clock is Ticking

Despite their best efforts to increase output, it’s likely that sawmills across the U.S. will continue playing catch-up in 2021.

“There was a great fear among sawmills to prepare for a downturn. When home buying surged, they could not open up capacity quickly enough.”
– Lawrence Yun, National Association of Realtors

Analysts are now warning that lumber prices could reach a flashpoint, where affordability becomes so limited that demand suddenly falls off. This has led the NAHB to ask the Biden administration for a temporary pause on Canadian lumber tariffs, which currently sit at 9%.

U.S. tariffs on Canadian lumber were first introduced in 1982, and represent one of the longest lasting trade wars between the two nations. The U.S. is currently appealing a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling that states its 2017 tariff hike was a breach of global trading rules.

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