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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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Markets

Mapped: GDP per Capita Worldwide

GDP per capita is one of the best measures of a country’s standard of living. This map showcases the GDP per capita in every country globally.

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gdp per capita

Mapped: Visualizing GDP per Capita Worldwide

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

GDP per capita has steadily risen globally over time, and in tandem, the standard of living worldwide has increased immensely.

This map using data from the IMF shows the GDP per capita (nominal) of nearly every country and territory in the world.

GDP per capita is one of the best measures of a country’s wealth as it provides an understanding of how each country’s citizens live on average, showing a representation of the quantity of goods and services created per person.

The Standard of Living Over Time

Looking at history, our standard of living has increased drastically. According to Our World in Data, from 1820 to 2018, the average global GDP per capita increased by almost 15x.

Literacy rates, access to vaccines, and basic education have also improved our quality of life, while things like child mortality rates and poverty have all decreased.

For example, in 1990, 1.9 billion people lived in extreme poverty, which was 36% of the world’s population at the time. Over the last 30 years, the number has been steadily decreasing — by 2030, an estimated 479 million people will be living in extreme poverty, which according to UN population estimates, will represent only 6% of the population.

That said, economic inequality between different regions is still prevalent. In fact, the richest country today (in terms of nominal GDP per capita), Luxembourg, is over 471x more wealthy than the poorest, Burundi.

Here’s a look at the 10 countries with the highest GDP per capita in 2021:

gdp per capita top 10 countries

However, not all citizens in Luxembourg are extremely wealthy. In fact:

  • 29% of people spend over 40% of their income on housing costs
  • 31% would be at risk of falling into poverty if they had to forgo 3 months of income

The cost of living is expensive in Luxembourg — but the standard of living in terms of goods and services produced is the highest in the world. Additionally, only 4% of the population reports low life satisfaction.

Emerging Economies and Developing Countries

Although we have never lived in a more prosperous period, and poverty rates have been declining overall, this year global extreme poverty rose for the first time in over two decades.

About 120 million additional people are living in poverty as a result of the pandemic, with the total expected to rise to about 150 million by the end of 2021.

Many of the poorest countries in the world are also considered Least Developed Countries (LDCs) by the UN. In these countries, more than 75% of the population live below the poverty line.

Here’s a look at the 10 countries with the lowest GDP per capita:

gdp per capita bottom 10 countries

Life in these countries offers a stark contrast compared to the top 10. Here’s a glance at the quality of life in the poorest country, Burundi:

  • 80% of the population works in agriculture
  • 1 in 3 Burundians are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance
  • Average households spend up to two-thirds of their income on food

However, many of the world’s poorest countries can also be classified as emerging markets with immense economic potential in the future.

In fact, China has seen the opportunity in emerging economies. Their confidence in these regions is best exemplified in the Belt and Road initiative which has funneled massive investments into infrastructure projects across multiple African countries.

Continually Raising the Bar

Prosperity is a very recent reality only characterizing the last couple hundred years. In pre-modern societies, the average person was living in conditions that would be considered extreme poverty by today’s standards.

Overall, the standard of living for everyone today is immensely improved compared to even recent history, and some countries will be experiencing rapid economic growth in the future.

GDP per Capita in 2021: Full Dataset

CountryGDP per Capita (Nominal, 2021, USD)
🇱🇺 Luxembourg$125,923
🇮🇪 Ireland$90,478
🇨🇭 Switzerland$90,358
🇳🇴 Norway$76,408
🇺🇸 United States$66,144
🇩🇰 Denmark$63,645
🇸🇬 Singapore$62,113
🇮🇸 Iceland$58,371
🇳🇱 Netherlands$58,029
🇸🇪 Sweden$57,660
Australia$57,211
Qatar$55,417
Austria$54,820
Finland$54,817
Germany$51,967
Belgium$50,051
Macao SAR$48,207
Hong Kong SAR$47,990
Canada$45,871
France$44,770
San Marino$44,676
Israel$43,439
United Kingdom$42,236
New Zealand$41,793
Japan$40,733
Italy$35,062
United Arab Emirates$32,686
South Korea$32,305
Malta$32,099
The Bahamas$31,532
Puerto Rico$31,207
Spain$31,178
Europe$31,022
Cyprus$29,686
Taiwan $28,890
Slovenia$28,734
Estonia$26,378
Brunei $26,274
Czech Republic$25,991
Portugal$25,097
Bahrain$23,710
Kuwait$23,138
Lithuania$22,752
Aruba$22,710
Slovakia$21,606
Saudi Arabia$20,742
Greece$20,521
Latvia$19,934
Hungary$17,645
Barbados$17,472
Poland$16,740
Trinidad and Tobago$16,622
Saint Kitts and Nevis$16,491
Croatia$16,402
Uruguay$16,297
Romania$14,916
Antigua and Barbuda$14,748
Oman$14,675
Panama$14,390
Chile$14,209
Maldives$14,194
Palau$13,180
Seychelles$12,648
Costa Rica$11,805
China$11,713
Malaysia$11,378
Bulgaria$11,349
Russia$10,793
Saint Lucia$10,636
Grenada$10,211
Guyana$9,913
Nauru$9,865
Mauritius$9,630
Kazakhstan$9,454
Montenegro$9,152
Argentina$9,095
Turkmenistan$8,874
Serbia$8,444
Mexico$8,403
Dominica$8,111
Equatorial Guinea$8,000
Gabon$7,785
Dominican Republic$7,740
Thailand$7,675
Iran$7,668
Turkey$7,659
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines$7,401
Botswana$7,036
North Macedonia $6,933
Brazil$6,728
Bosnia and Herzegovina$6,536
Belarus$6,513
Peru$6,229
Jamaica$5,643
Ecuador$5,589
Colombia$5,457
South Africa$5,236
Paraguay$5,207
Albania$5,161
Tonga$4,949
Suriname$4,921
Fiji$4,822
Iraq$4,767
Kosovo$4,753
Libya$4,733
Georgia$4,714
Moldova$4,527
Armenia$4,427
Namibia$4,412
Azerbaijan$4,404
Guatemala$4,385
Jordan$4,347
Tuvalu$4,296
Indonesia$4,287
Mongolia$4,139
Marshall Islands$4,092
Samoa$4,053
El Salvador$4,023
Micronesia$3,995
Belize$3,968
Sri Lanka$3,928
Vietnam$3,759
Eswatini$3,697
Cabo Verde$3,675
Bolivia$3,618
Ukraine$3,615
Egypt$3,606
Philippines$3,602
North Africa$3,560
Algeria$3,449
Bhutan$3,447
Morocco$3,409
Tunisia$3,380
Djibouti$3,275
West Bank and Gaza$3,060
Vanuatu$2,967
Laos$2,614
Papua New Guinea$2,596
Honduras$2,593
Côte d'Ivoire$2,571
Solomon Islands$2,501
Ghana$2,300
Republic of Congo$2,271
Nigeria$2,209
São Tomé and Príncipe$2,133
Angola$2,130
Kenya$2,122
India$2,031
Bangladesh$1,990
Uzbekistan$1,836
Nicaragua$1,828
Kiribati$1,817
Mauritania$1,782
Cambodia$1,680
Cameroon$1,657
Senegal$1,629
Venezuela$1,586
Myanmar$1,441
Comoros$1,431
Benin$1,400
Timor-Leste$1,273
Kyrgyzstan$1,270
Nepal$1,166
Tanzania$1,132
Guinea$1,067
Lesotho$1,018
Zambia$1,006
Mali$992
Uganda$971
Ethiopia$918
Tajikistan$851
Burkina Faso$851
Guinea-Bissau$844
Rwanda$820
The Gambia$809
Togo$759
Sudan$714
Chad$710
Haiti$698
Liberia$646
Eritrea$632
Yemen$573
Niger$567
Madagascar$554
Central African Republic$522
Zimbabwe$516
Afghanistan$506
Democratic Republic of the Congo$478
Sierra Leone$471
Mozambique$431
Malawi$397
South Sudan$323
Burundi$267

Editor’s note: Readers have rightly pointed out that Monaco is one of the world’s richest countries in GDP per capita (nominal) terms. This is true, but the IMF dataset excludes Monaco and lists it as “No data” each year. As a result, it is excluded from the visualization(s) above.

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Technology

Ranked: The Most Innovative Companies in 2021

In today’s fast-paced market, companies have to be innovative constantly. Here’s a look at the top 50 most innovative companies in 2021.

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Most Innovative Companies 2021

Ranked: the Top 50 Most Innovative Companies in 2021

This year has been rife with pandemic-induced changes that have shifted corporate priorities—and yet, innovation has remained a top concern among corporations worldwide.

Using data from the annual ranking done by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) using a poll of 1,600 global innovation professionals, this graphic ranks the top 50 most innovative companies in 2021.

We’ll dig into a few of the leading companies, along with their innovative practices, below.

Most Innovative Companies: A Breakdown of the Leaderboard

To create the top 50 innovative company ranking, BCG uses four variables:

  • Global “Mindshare”: The number of votes from all innovation executives.
  • Industry Peer Review: The number of votes from executives in a company’s industry.
  • Industry Disruption: A diversity index to measure votes across industries.
  • Value Creation: Total share return.

For the second year in a row, Apple claims the top spot on this list. Here’s a look at the full ranking for 2021:

 CompanyIndustryHQChange from 2020
1AppleTechnology🇺🇸 U.S.--
2AlphabetTechnology🇺🇸 U.S.--
3AmazonConsumer Goods🇺🇸 U.S.--
4MicrosoftTechnology🇺🇸 U.S.--
5TeslaTransport & Energy🇺🇸 U.S.+6
6SamsungTechnology🇰🇷 South Korea-1
7IBMTechnology🇺🇸 U.S.+1
8HuaweiTechnology🇨🇳 China-2
9SonyConsumer Goods🇯🇵 Japan--
10PfizerHealthcare🇺🇸 U.S.Return
11SiemensTechnology🇩🇪 Germany+10
12LG ElectronicsConsumer Goods🇰🇷 South Korea+6
13FacebookTechnology🇺🇸 U.S.-3
14AlibabaConsumer Goods🇨🇳 China-7
15OracleTechnology🇺🇸 U.S.+10
16DellTechnology🇺🇸 U.S.+4
17Cisco SystemsTechnology🇺🇸 U.S.-5
18TargetConsumer Goods🇺🇸 U.S.+4
19HP Inc.Technology🇺🇸 U.S.-4
20Johnson & JohnsonHealthcare🇺🇸 U.S.+6
21ToyotaTransport & Energy🇯🇵 Japan+20
22SalesforceTechnology🇺🇸 U.S.+13
23WalmartConsumer Goods🇺🇸 U.S.-10
24NikeConsumer Goods🇺🇸 U.S.-8
25LenovoTechnology🇭🇰 Hong Kong SARReturn
26TencentConsumer Goods🇨🇳 China-12
27Procter & GambleConsumer Goods🇺🇸 U.S.+12
28Coca-ColaConsumer Goods🇺🇸 U.S.+20
29Abbott LabsHealthcare🇺🇸 U.S.New
30BoschTransport & Energy🇩🇪 Germany+3
31XiaomiTechnology🇨🇳 China-7
32IkeaConsumer Goods🇳🇱 NetherlandsReturn
33Fast RetailingConsumer Goods🇯🇵 JapanReturn
34AdidasConsumer Goods🇩🇪 GermanyReturn
35Merck & Co.Healthcare🇺🇸 U.S.Return
36NovartisHealthcare🇨🇭 Switzerland+11
37EbayConsumer Goods🇺🇸 U.S.Return
38PepsiCoConsumer Goods🇺🇸 U.S.Return
39HyundaiTransport & Energy🇰🇷 South KoreaReturn
40SAPTechnology🇩🇪 Germany-13
41InditexConsumer Goods🇪🇸 SpainReturn
42ModernaHealthcare🇺🇸 U.S.New
43PhilipsHealthcare🇳🇱 Netherlands-20
44DisneyMedia & Telecomms🇺🇸 U.S.Return
45MitsubishiTransport & Energy🇯🇵 JapanNew
46ComcastMedia & Telecomms🇺🇸 U.S.New
47GETransport & Energy🇺🇸 U.S.Return
48RocheHealthcare🇨🇭 SwitzerlandReturn
49AstraZenecaHealthcare🇬🇧 UKNew
50BayerHealthcare🇩🇪 Germany-12

One company worth touching on is Pfizer, a returnee from previous years that ranked 10th in this year’s ranking. It’s no surprise that Pfizer made the list, considering its instrumental role in the fight against COVID-19. In partnership with BioNTech, Pfizer produced a COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year. This is impressive considering that, historically, vaccine development could take up to a decade to complete.

Pfizer is just one of four COVID-19 vaccine producers to appear on the list this year—Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca also made the cut.

Meanwhile, in a completely different industry, Toyota snagged the 21st spot on this year’s list, up 20 places compared to the rankings in the previous year. This massive jump can be signified by the company’s recent $400 million investment into a company set to build flying electric cars.

While we often think of R&D and innovation as being synonymous, the former is just one innovation technique that’s helped companies earn a spot on the list. Other companies have innovated in different ways, like streamlining processes to increase efficiency.

For instance, in 2021, Coca-Cola performed an analysis of their beverage portfolio and ended up cutting their brand list in half, from 400 to 200 global brands. This ability to pare down and pivot could be a reason behind its 20 rank increase from 2020.

Innovation Creates Value

As this year’s ranking indicates, innovation comes in many forms. But, while there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, there is one fairly consistent innovation trend—the link between innovation and value.

In fact, according to historical data from BCG, the correlation between value and innovation has grown even stronger over the last two decades.

Most Innovative Companies 2021

For example, in 2020, a portfolio that was theoretically invested in BCG’s most innovative companies would have performed 17% better than the MSCI World Index—which wasn’t the case back in 2005.

And yet, despite innovation’s value, many companies can’t reap the benefits that innovation offers because they aren’t ready to scale their innovative practices.

The Innovation Readiness Gap

BCG uses several metrics to gauge a company’s “innovation readiness,” such as the strength of its talent and culture, its organization ecosystems, and its ability to track performance.

According to BCG’s analysis, only 20% of companies surveyed were ready to scale on innovation.

Scaling Innovation

What’s holding companies back from reaching their innovation potential? The most significant gap seems to be in what BCG calls innovation practices—things like project management or the ability to execute an idea that’s both efficient and consistent with an overarching strategy.

To overcome this obstacle, BCG says companies need to foster a “one-team mentality” to increase interdepartmental collaboration and align team incentives, so everyone is working towards the same goal.

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