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The Best and Worst Performing Sectors of 2020

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The Best and Worst Performing Sectors of 2020

The Best and Worst Performing Sectors of 2020

To say that 2020 was an unusual year in markets would be a vast understatement.

In 2020, we saw the quickest and deepest bear market decline in history, trillions of dollars of global stimulus, the highest volatility (VIX) on record, negative oil prices, and the fastest recovery from a bear market ever—just to name a few of the abnormalities.

And while the broader economy is still in a state of repair, investors finished the year in the black. The S&P 500, for example, ended with 16.3% gains, which was an above-average outing for the benchmark index.

Winners and Losing Sectors of 2020

Today’s visualization uses an augmented screenshot of the FinViz treemap, showing the final numbers posted for major U.S.-listed companies, sorted by sector and industry.

As you can see, the best and worst performing sectors generally fall into two categories: those that benefitted from COVID-19, and those that didn’t.

This massive divergence is evident in the numbers. Companies in winning sectors are often up double or triple digits—while their losing counterparts were often down double digits, sometimes even halving in value from how they started the year.

The Winners

1. Software Applications
It was another banner year for Big Tech, but some of the top performing companies were those that acted as enablers to remote working and ecommerce. Perhaps the most notable entry here is Shopify, which rose 178% on the year and is nearly a $150 billion company today.

2. Internet Retail
While Amazon is the undisputed 800-pound gorilla in ecommerce, companies like Etsy and Wayfair also had incredible years—as did many internet retail plays on the opposite side of the Pacific. Chinese company Pinduoduo, described as the fastest growing tech company in the world, gained 331% on the year as it capitalized on emerging trends such as social ecommerce, team purchasing, and consumer-to-manufacturing (C2M) sales.

3. Basic Materials
It’s been a long downtrend in the commodity super cycle, but materials have come back into vogue. Copper prices are at eight-year highs, and gold hit all-time highs in August 2020. Some companies, such as Albemarle—the largest supplier of lithium for electric vehicles—doubled their stock price over the course of the year.

4. Freight and Logistics
The shift to ecommerce has come faster than anticipated, and companies like FedEx and UPS couldn’t be happier. And with the transportation of ultra-refrigerated vaccines lining up to be a key need of 2021, it’s no surprise to see Cryoport up 165% on the year.

5. Semiconductors
For a second straight year, semiconductor companies finished as winners on our list. The world needs more hardware to house and process the ever-expanding datasphere, and companies like Nvidia showed triple-digit gains in 2020, up 117%.

Honorable mentions: Discount stores, retail home improvement, farm and heavy construction machinery, medical care facilities, and consumer electronics

The Losers

1. Oil and Gas
The oil sector was already struggling pre-COVID with price wars and a supply glut, but then lockdowns and the shutdown of non-essential travel provided another blow. BP finished the year at nearly half its market capitalization, falling 46% on the year.

2. Diversified Banks
With record-low interest rates, shuttered physical locations, and credit risks looming from unemployed borrowers, bank stocks struggled in 2020. Wells Fargo, for example, finished down the year 44%.

3. Real Estate – Retail
Many malls have not been collecting rent checks from their tenants, creating a challenging environment for many property owners and managers. Simon, the country’s largest shopping mall operator, felt the pain as its stock dropped 41% in 2020.

4. Airlines
It goes without saying that less flying means less revenue for airlines. But going forward, with web conferencing now the professional norm, it’s also expected that lucrative business passenger numbers will take a hit in the future. United Airlines finished the year at less than half their market capitalization (-54%).

5. Aerospace/Defense
Many aerospace and defense stocks were unable to rebound to pre-pandemic levels. Boeing, for example, finished the year down 36%.

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Markets

What History Reveals About Interest Rate Cuts

How have previous cycles of interest rate cuts in the U.S. impacted the economy and financial markets?

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Line chart showing the depth and duration of previous cycles of interest rate cuts.

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The following content is sponsored by New York Life Investments

What History Reveals About Interest Rate Cuts

The Federal Reserve has overseen seven cycles of interest rate cuts, averaging 26 months and 6.35 percentage points (ppts) each.

We’ve partnered with New York Life Investments to examine the impact of interest rate cut cycles on the economy and on the performance of financial assets in the U.S. to help keep investors informed. 

A Brief History of Interest Rate Cuts

Interest rates are a powerful tool that the central bank can use to spur economic activity. 

Typically, when the economy experiences a slowdown or a recession, the Federal Reserve will respond by cutting interest rates. As a result, each of the previous seven rate cut cycles—shown in the table below—occurred during or around U.S. recessions, according to data from the Federal Reserve. 

Interest Rate Cut CycleMagnitude (ppts)
July 2019–April 2020-2.4
July 2007–December 2008-5.1
November 2000–July 2003-5.5
May 1989–December 1992-6.9
August 1984–October 1986-5.8
July 1981–February 1983-10.5
July 1974–January 1977-8.3
Average-6.4

Source: Federal Reserve 07/03/2024

Understanding past economic and financial impacts of interest rate cuts can help investors prepare for future monetary policy changes.

The Economic Response: Inflation

During past cycles, data from the Federal Reserve, shows that, on average, the inflation rate continued to decline throughout (-3.4 percentage points), largely due to the lagged effects of a slower economy that normally precedes interest rate declines. 

CycleStart to end change (ppts)End to one year later (ppts)
July 2019–April 2020-1.5+3.8
July 2007–December 2008-2.3+2.6
November 2000–July 2003-1.3+0.9
May 1989–December 1992-2.5-0.2
August 1984–October 1986-2.8+3.1
July 1981–February 1983-7.3+1.1
July 1974–January 1977-6.3+1.6
Average-3.4+1.9

Source: Federal Reserve 07/03/2024. Based on the effective federal funds rate. Calculations are based on the previous four rate cut cycles (2019-2020, 2007-2008, 2000-2003, 1989-1992, 1984-1986, 1981-1983, 1974-1977).

However, inflation played catch-up and rose by +1.9 percentage points one year after the final rate cut. With lower interest rates, consumers were incentivized to spend more and save less, which led to an uptick in the price of goods and services in six of the past seven cycles. 

The Economic Response: Real Consumer Spending Growth

Real consumer spending growth, as measured by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, typically reacted to rate cuts more quickly. 

On average, consumption growth rose slightly during the rate cut periods (+0.3 percentage points) and that increase accelerated one year later (+1.7 percentage points). 

CycleStart to end (ppts)End to one year later (ppts)
July 2019–April 2020-9.6+15.3
July 2007–December 2008-4.6+3.1
November 2000–July 2003+0.8-2.5
May 1989–December 1992+3.0-1.3
August 1984–October 1986+1.6-2.7
July 1981–February 1983+7.2-0.7
July 1974–January 1977+3.9+0.9
Average+0.3+1.7

Source: BEA 07/03/2024. Quarterly data. Consumer spending growth is based on the percent change from the preceding quarter in real personal consumption expenditures, seasonally adjusted at annual rates. Percent changes at annual rates were then used to calculate the change in growth over rate cut cycles. Data from the last full quarter before the date in question was used for calculations. Calculations are based on the previous four rate cut cycles (2019-2020, 2007-2008, 2000-2003, 1989-1992, 1984-1986, 1981-1983, 1974-1977).

The COVID-19 pandemic and the Global Financial Crisis were outliers. Spending continued to fall during the rate cut cycles but picked up one year later.

The Investment Response: Stocks, Bonds, and Real Estate

Historically, the trend in financial asset performance differed between stocks, bonds, and real estate both during and after interest rate declines.

Stocks and real estate posted negative returns during the cutting phases, with stocks taking the bigger hit. Conversely, bonds, a traditional safe haven, gained ground. 

AssetDuring (%)1 Quarter After (%)2 Quarters After (%)4 Quarters After (%)
Stocks-6.0+18.2+19.4+23.9
Bonds+6.3+15.3+15.1+10.9
Real Estate-4.8+25.5+15.6+25.5

Source: Yahoo Finance, Federal Reserve, NAREIT 09/04/2024. The S&P 500 total return index was used to track performance of stocks. The ICE Corporate Bonds total return index was used to track the performance of bonds. The NAREIT All Equity REITs total return index was used to track the performance of real estate. Calculations are based on the previous four rate cut cycles (2019-2020, 2007-2008, 2000-2003, 1989-1992). It is not possible to invest directly in an index. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Index definitions can be found at the end of this piece.

However, in the quarters preceding the last rate cut, all three assets increased in value. One year later, real estate had the highest average performance, followed closely by stocks, with bonds coming in third.

What’s Next for Interest Rates

In March 2024, the Federal Reserve released its Summary of Economic Projections outlining its expectation that U.S. interest rates will fall steadily in 2024 and beyond.

YearRange (%)Median (%)
Current5.25-5.505.375
20244.50-4.754.625
20253.75-4.03.875
20263.00-3.253.125
Longer run2.50-2.752.625

Source: Federal Reserve 20/03/2024

Though the timing of interest rate cuts is uncertain, being armed with the knowledge of their impact on the economy and financial markets can provide valuable insight to investors. 

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