How Every Asset Class, Currency, and S&P 500 Sector Performed in 2021
How Every Market Performed in 2021
After the roller coaster of volatility in 2020, the majority of asset classes in 2021 saw positive returns as the world reopened for business.
The Federal Reserve’s accommodative monetary policy, supply chain struggles, and high demand for fuels and raw materials for the clean energy transition largely shaped the markets.
Alongside the rise in inflation, commodities and cryptocurrency outperformed as broad equity indices saw double-digit returns, with the S&P 500 rising by 26.9% in 2021.
Markets Roundup for 2021
Speculation and the energy fuels for the world’s reopening were two of the main themes for markets in 2021, reflected in Bitcoin (59.8%) and crude oil (56.4%) being the top two performing assets in that time frame.
The S&P GSCI commodity index (37.1%) was another top performer, as agricultural and livestock food prices rose alongside the Dow Jones Real Estate Index (35.1%).
|Asset Class||2021 Return||Asset Type|
|WTI Crude Oil||56.4%||Commodity|
|Dow Jones Real Estate Index||35.1%||Real Estate|
|Bloomberg Barclays Corporate Bonds Index||-1.2%||Bonds|
|Bloomberg U.S. Treasury Index||-2.5%||Bonds|
|MSCI Emerging Markets||-5.5%||Equities|
Despite most physical and digital commodities seeing price gains, precious metals such as gold (-3.6%) and silver (-11.7%) struggled to hold onto their value, while industrial and battery metals like lithium (477.4%) and cobalt (207.7%) surged.
Large cap equity indices like the S&P 500 (26.9%) almost doubled the returns of small caps (Russell 2000, 13.7%), with emerging markets failing to keep up as they fell 5.5%.
How the S&P 500 Sectors Performed
After last year’s poor performance as the worst-performing S&P 500 sector, energy (47.7%) was 2021’s best performing sector alongside the rise in crude oil and other energy commodities.
Two other negative performers last year, real estate (42.5%) and financials (32.6%), also turned it around and were among the top performing sectors this year.
Despite many value equities performing well, growth equities still managed to keep a strong pace. Information technology (33.4%) continued to provide strong returns with Microsoft (51.2%) outperforming many of the other tech giants.
As Amazon (2.38%) and Netflix lagged behind (11.4%), Apple (33.8%) capped off its strong 2021 returns by becoming the first U.S. company to reach a $3T market cap at the start of 2022.
Foreign Exchange and Currency Returns in 2021
While the U.S. dollar struggled last year with most currencies outperforming it, 2021 saw the dollar index rise by 6.4%, outperforming most other currencies.
The Chinese yuan (2.7%) and Canadian dollar (0.7%) were the only major currencies that managed positive returns against the U.S. dollar, while the Australian dollar (-5.7%), Euro (-7.0%), and Japanese Yen (-10.2%) were among the worst performers.
The Turkish lira was the standout loser in foreign exchange, and the turmoil was punctuated by turnover in the country’s finance minister position. While most other emerging economies raised interest rates to fight against inflation, Turkey has continued cutting rates and looks set to default on its $446 million of external debt.
The Winners and Losers of 2021
As the COVID-19 pandemic defined many of the winners and losers in 2020, the gradual reopening of international travel and business shaped the over and underperformers of 2021.
Cryptocurrencies had a standout year beyond Bitcoin (59.8%), which was greatly outpaced by many other cryptocurrencies and smart contract platforms like Ethereum (398.3%), Solana (11,177.8%), Avalanche (3,334.8%), and Luna (12,967.3%).
While Tesla (49.8%) had another strong year, Lucid and Ford Motors greatly outperformed Elon Musk’s company and the rest of the auto industry with their EV efforts. Demand was so great that Ford had to halt reservations for its F-150 Lightning pickup trucks at the end of 2021.
The pain of Evergrande Group (89.3%) shareholders is set to end soon, with the company starting 2022 by halting shares in Hong Kong as its $300 billion in liabilities remain in limbo.
Peloton (-76.4%) was another big loser in 2021 as it gave back nearly all of its gains from last year, proving lockdown speculation fueled most of its former valuation. Just Eat (-52.9%) was similarly hit hard as restaurants reopened in 2021.
Robinhood’s (53.3%) weak performance since its IPO puts a bow on 2021’s retail “stonk” frenzy kicked off by the Wall Street Bets subreddit.
With 2021 being a breakout year for retail traders and investors online, we’ll see if 2022 remains risk-on as the Fed begins tapering, or if markets are due for a change in direction.
Mapped: The State of Economic Freedom in 2023
How free are people to control their own labor, property, and finances? This map reveals the state of economic freedom globally.
Mapped: The State of Economic Freedom in 2023
The concept of economic freedom serves as a vital framework for evaluating the extent to which individuals and businesses have the freedom to make economic decisions. In countries with low economic freedom, governments exert coercion and constraints on liberties, restricting choice for individuals and businesses, which can ultimately hinder prosperity.
The map above uses the annual Index of Economic Freedom from the Heritage Foundation to showcase the level of economic freedom in every country worldwide on a scale of 0-100, looking at factors like property rights, tax burdens, labor freedom, and so on.
The ranking categorizing scores of 80+ as free economies, 70-79.9 as mostly free, 60-69.9 as moderately free, 50-59.9 as mostly unfree, and 0-49.9 as repressed.
Measuring Economic Freedom
This ranking uses four broad categories with three key indicators each, both qualitative and quantitative, to measure economic freedom.
- Rule of law: property rights, judicial effectiveness, government integrity
- Size of government: tax burdens, fiscal health, government spending
- Regulatory efficiency: labor freedom, monetary freedom, business freedom
- Open markets: financial freedom, trade freedom, investment freedom
The 12 indicators are weighted equally and scored from 0-100. The overall score is then determined from the average of the 12 indicators.
Here’s a closer look at every country’s score:
|#5||🇳🇿 New Zealand||78.9|
|#15||🇰🇷 South Korea||73.7|
|#24||🇦🇪 United Arab Emirates||70.9|
|#25||🇺🇸 United States||70.6|
|#28||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||69.9|
|#45||🇨🇷 Costa Rica||66.5|
|#47||🇨🇻 Cabo Verde||65.8|
|#48||🇧🇳 Brunei Darussalam||65.7|
|#56||🇲🇰 North Macedonia||63.7|
|#59||🇻🇨 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||63.5|
|#63||🇧🇦 Bosnia and Herzegovina||62.9|
|#65||🇩🇴 Dominican Republic||62.6|
|#66||🇧🇸 The Bahamas||62.6|
|#74||🇸🇹 São Tomé and Príncipe||61.5|
|#79||🇱🇨 Saint Lucia||60.7|
|#81||🇨🇮 Côte d'Ivoire||60.4|
|#88||🇹🇹 Trinidad and Tobago||59.5|
|#98||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||58.3|
|#101||🇬🇲 The Gambia||57.9|
|#107||🇸🇧 Solomon Islands||56.9|
|#111||🇧🇫 Burkina Faso||56.2|
|#114||🇸🇻 El Salvador||56.0|
|#116||🇿🇦 South Africa||55.7|
|#136||🇱🇰 Sri Lanka||52.2|
|#140||🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea||51.7|
|#148||🇸🇱 Sierra Leone||50.2|
|#153||🇬🇶 Equatorial Guinea||48.3|
|#157||🇨🇩 Democratic Republic of the Congo||47.9|
|#166||🇨🇫 Central African Republic||43.8|
|#176||🇰🇵 North Korea||2.9|
Only four countries in the world have a score of 80 or above, Ireland, Singapore, Switzerland, and Taiwan, categorizing them as completely free economically.
Let’s now look at things from a more regional perspective.
From a regional perspective, Europe ranks the strongest in economic freedom.
Despite being a powerhouse within Europe, Germany ranks 10th in the continent, with a score of 73.7. One of the categories Germany scored the weakest in was government spending (28.3/100). Over the last three years, government spending has averaged 49% of GDP.
Ireland ranks third globally, scoring particularly high in categories like property rights and judicial effectiveness. The country also has no minimum capital requirement—which is typically a banking regulation and corporate law issue determining how many assets an organization must hold—making it attractive for businesses to set up shop on the Emerald Isle.
Currently, Africa is the continent with the least economic freedom in the world, however, it is also the region with the highest potential for economic growth. A booming population, and thus, labor force, are promising for future innovation. In fact, it’s anticipated that Africa will see an increase of 2.5 billion people by the end of the century.
The lowest scoring country in Africa is Sudan, a country under further strain thanks to rife civil conflict. Historically, economic development has been constrained by rampant corruption and a lack of institutional capacity.
Conversely, Botswana registered the highest score on continental Africa (64.9), ranking higher than countries like France and Italy.
In the Americas, the United States ranks 3rd regionally—25th overall—with a score of 70.6. The report attributes the categorization of U.S. as only “mostly free” to issues like inflation, increasing government debt, and unchecked deficit spending. Public debt currently sits at a figure equivalent to more than 128% of GDP.
In South America, Chile comes out on top, ranking above many other economic powerhouses like the U.S., the UK, and Japan. However, the 2021 election of a new Constitutional Assembly could risk the current economic state, as it favors a much more socialist approach to the economy.
East Asia and Oceania
China’s score is among the lowest in East Asia & Oceania, ranking 154th in the world categorizing it as a repressed economy. The ruling Chinese Communist Party routinely exercises direct control over economic activity. China’s protectionist stance towards foreign investment and a plethora of trade tariffs imposed by other nations also factor in here.
In India, where public debt is equivalent to about 84% of GDP, fiscal health is the worst-scoring category. Additionally, much of the economy remains quite informal; a large share of people work in jobs without tax slips, recorded income, or formal contracts protecting them, which challenges labor freedoms.
The Middle East and Central Asia
It may come as no surprise that the United Arab Emirates has the highest score in the Middle East. The UAE has implemented various measures and initiatives, such as tax exemptions, duty-free zones, streamlined business registration processes, and flexible regulatory frameworks to encourage entrepreneurship and foreign direct investment. As well, the top individual and corporate tax rates in the country are 0%.
Türkiye’s lowest scoring category relates to judiciary effectiveness and the rule of law. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has already been in power for two decades, recently won the country’s election, again cementing his authority over Turkish politics. This makes it unlikely that Türkiye’s economic freedom score will recover in the short to medium term.
Where Does This Data Come From?
Source: The Index of Economic Freedom from the Heritage Foundation
Data notes: A number of countries were not ranked due to unavailable data or other factors, like ongoing war, that made it difficult to properly assess the economy. These countries include: Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Liechtenstein, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
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