How Every Asset Class, Currency, and S&P 500 Sector Performed in 2021
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How Every Asset Class, Currency, and S&P 500 Sector Performed in 2021

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2021 asset performance

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 Class2021 ReturnAsset Type
Bitcoin59.8%Cryptocurrency
WTI Crude Oil56.4%Commodity
S&P GSCI37.1%Commodity
Dow Jones Real Estate Index35.1%Real Estate
S&P 50026.9%Equities
S&P/TSX Composite21.7%Equities
Russell 200013.7%Equities
MSCI EAFE7.8%Equities
U.S. Dollar6.4%Currency
Bloomberg Barclays Corporate Bonds Index-1.2%Bonds
Bloomberg U.S. Treasury Index-2.5%Bonds
Gold-3.6%Commodity
MSCI Emerging Markets-5.5%Equities
Silver-11.7%Commodity

Source: TradingView

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.

S&P 500 sector performance 2021

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.

currency performance 2021

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.

2021 winners and losers

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.

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Visualizing China’s $18 Trillion Economy in One Chart

China’s economy reached a GDP of 114 trillion yuan ($18 trillion) in 2021, well above government targets. What sectors drove that growth?

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Visualizing China's Economy By Sector in 2021 Shareable

Visualizing China’s $18 Trillion Economy in 2021

China is well-known to be the world’s second largest economy after the U.S., and it is expected to eventually overtake the number one position in the coming decades.

While China’s economy has had a much rockier start this year due to zero-tolerance COVID-19 lockdowns and supply chain issues, our visualization covers a full year of data for 2021⁠—a year in which most economies recovered after the initial chaos of the pandemic.

In 2021, China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) reached ¥114 trillion ($18 trillion in USD), according to the National Bureau of Statistics. The country’s economy outperformed government targets of 6% growth, with the overall economy growing by 8.1%.

Let’s take a look at what powers China’s modern economy.

Breaking Down China’s Economy By Sector

Sector2021 Total GDP
(Yuan)
2021 Total GDP
(USD)
% Share
Industry¥37.3T$5.9T32.6%
Wholesale and Retail Trades¥10.5T$1.7T9.2%
Finance¥9.1T$1.4T8.0%
Farming, Forestry, Animal Husbandry, and Fishery¥8.7T$1.4T7.6%
Construction¥8.0T$1.3T7.0%
Real Estate¥7.8T$1.2T6.9%
Transport, Storage, and Post¥4.7T$0.7T4.1%
Information Transmission, Software and IT Services¥4.4T$0.7T3.9%
Renting & Leasing Activities and Business Services¥3.5T$0.6T3.1%
Accommodation and Restaurants¥1.8T$0.3T1.6%
Others¥18.1T$2.8T15.9%
Total¥114T¥18T100.0%

Industrial production—activity in the manufacturing, mining, and utilities sectors—is by far the leading driver of China’s economy. In 2021, the sector generated ¥37.3 trillion, or one-third of the country’s total economic activity.

Despite a slowdown in December, wholesale and retail trades also performed strongly in 2021. As the main gauge of consumption, it was affected by lockdown measures and the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant towards the end of the year, but still rose by double digits, reaching a total of ¥10.5 trillion*.

“Other services”, which includes everything from scientific research and development to education and social services, generated 16% of China’s total economy in 2021, or ¥18.1 trillion.

*Editor’s note: At time of publishing, China’s government seems to have since adjusted this number to ¥11.0 trillion, which is not consistent with the original data set provided, but worth noting.

Where is China’s GDP Headed?

China’s economy recovered noticeably faster than most major economies last year, and as the overall trend below shows, the country has grown consistently in the years prior.

Visualizing China's GDP Growth

Before the pandemic hit, China’s quarterly GDP growth had been quite stable at just above 5%.

After the initial onset of COVID-19, the country’s economy faltered, mirroring economies around the globe. But after a strong recovery into 2021, resurging cases caused a new series of crackdowns on the private sector, slowing down GDP growth considerably.

With the slowdown continuing into early 2022, China’s economic horizon still looks uncertain. The lockdown in Shanghai is expected to continue all the way to June 1st, and over recent months there have been hundreds of ships stuck outside of Shanghai’s port as a part of ongoing supply chain challenges.

China’s Zero-COVID Policy: Good or Bad for the Economy?

While every country reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic differently, China adopted a zero-COVID policy of strict lockdowns to control cases and outbreaks.

For most of 2021, the policy didn’t deter GDP growth. Despite some major cities fully or partially locked down to control regional outbreaks, the country’s economy still paced well ahead of many other major economies.

But the policy faced a challenge with the emergence of the Omicron variant. Despite lockdowns and an 88% vaccination rate nationally, seven out of China’s 31 provinces and all of the biggest cities have reported Omicron cases.

And China’s zero-COVID policy has not affected all sectors equally. Industrial production rose by more than 10% in the first 11 months of 2021, despite city lockdowns around the country. That’s because many factories in China are in suburban industrial parks outside the cities, and employees often live nearby.

But many sectors like hotels and restaurants have been more severely affected by city lockdowns. Many global economies are starting to transition to living with COVID, with China remaining as one of the last countries to follow a zero-COVID policy. Does that ensure the country’s economy will continue to slow in 2022, or will China manage to recover and maintain one of the world’s fastest growing economies?

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Charted: U.S. Consumer Debt Approaches $16 Trillion

Robust growth in mortgages has pushed U.S. consumer debt to nearly $16 trillion. Click to gain further insight into the situation.

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Charted: U.S. Consumer Debt Approaches $16 Trillion

According to the Federal Reserve (Fed), U.S. consumer debt is approaching a record-breaking $16 trillion. Critically, the rate of increase in consumer debt for the fourth quarter of 2021 was also the highest seen since 2007.

This graphic provides context into the consumer debt situation using data from the end of 2021.

Housing Vs. Non-Housing Debt

The following table includes the data used in the above graphic. Housing debt covers mortgages, while non-housing debt covers auto loans, student loans, and credit card balances.

DateHousing Debt
(USD trillions)
Non-Housing Debt
(USD trillions)
Total Consumer Debt
(USD trillions)
Q1 20035.182.057.23
Q2 20035.342.047.38
Q3 20035.452.107.55
Q4 20035.962.108.06
Q1 20046.172.138.30
Q2 20046.342.128.46
Q3 20046.642.208.84
Q4 20046.832.229.05
Q1 20057.012.199.20
Q2 20057.232.269.49
Q3 20057.452.359.80
Q4 20057.672.3410.01
Q1 20068.022.3610.38
Q2 20068.352.4010.75
Q3 20068.652.4611.11
Q4 20068.832.4811.31
Q1 20079.032.4611.49
Q2 20079.332.5311.86
Q3 20079.562.5812.14
Q4 20079.752.6312.38
Q1 20089.892.6512.54
Q2 20089.952.6512.60
Q3 20089.982.6912.67
Q4 20089.972.7112.68
Q1 20099.852.6812.53
Q2 20099.772.6312.40
Q3 20099.652.6212.27
Q4 20099.552.6212.17
Q1 20109.532.5812.11
Q2 20109.382.5511.93
Q3 20109.282.5611.84
Q4 20109.122.5911.71
Q1 20119.182.5811.76
Q2 20119.142.5811.72
Q3 20119.042.6211.66
Q4 20118.902.6311.53
Q1 20128.802.6411.44
Q2 20128.742.6411.38
Q3 20128.602.7111.31
Q4 20128.592.7511.34
Q1 20138.482.7511.23
Q2 20138.382.7711.15
Q3 20138.442.8511.29
Q4 20138.582.9411.52
Q1 20148.702.9611.66
Q2 20148.623.0211.64
Q3 20148.643.0711.71
Q4 20148.683.1611.84
Q1 20158.683.1711.85
Q2 20158.623.2411.86
Q3 20158.753.3112.06
Q4 20158.743.3712.11
Q1 20168.863.3912.25
Q2 20168.843.4512.29
Q3 20168.823.5412.36
Q4 20168.953.6312.58
Q1 20179.093.6412.73
Q2 20179.143.6912.83
Q3 20179.193.7712.96
Q4 20179.323.8213.14
Q1 20189.383.8513.23
Q2 20189.433.8713.30
Q3 20189.563.9513.51
Q4 20189.534.0113.54
Q1 20199.654.0213.67
Q2 20199.814.0613.87
Q3 20199.844.1313.97
Q4 20199.954.2014.15
Q1 202010.104.2114.31
Q2 202010.154.1214.27
Q3 202010.224.1414.36
Q4 202010.394.1714.56
Q1 202110.504.1414.64
Q2 202110.764.2014.96
Q3 202110.994.2415.23
Q4 202111.254.3415.59

Source: Federal Reserve

Trends in Housing Debt

Home prices have experienced upward pressure since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is evidenced by the Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, which has increased by 34% since the start of the pandemic.

Driving this growth are various pandemic-related impacts. For example, the cost of materials such as lumber have seen enormous spikes. We’ve covered this story in a previous graphic, which showed how many homes could be built with $50,000 worth of lumber. In most cases, these higher costs are passed on to the consumer.

Another key factor here is mortgage rates, which fell to all-time lows in 2020. When rates are low, consumers are able to borrow in larger quantities. This increases the demand for homes, which in turn inflates prices.

Ultimately, higher home prices translate to more mortgage debt being incurred by families.

No Need to Worry, Though

Economists believe that today’s housing debt isn’t a cause for concern. This is because the quality of borrowers is much stronger than it was between 2003 and 2007, in the years leading up to the financial crisis and subsequent housing crash.

In the chart below, subprime borrowers (those with a credit score of 620 and below) are represented by the red-shaded bars:

Mortgage originations by Credit Score

We can see that subprime borrowers represent very little (2%) of today’s total originations compared to the period between 2003 to 2007 (12%). This suggests that American homeowners are, on average, less likely to default on their mortgage.

Economists have also noted a decline in the household debt service ratio, which measures the percentage of disposable income that goes towards a mortgage. This is shown in the table below, along with the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate.

YearMortgage Payments as a % of Disposable IncomeAverage 30-Year Fixed Mortgage Rate
200012.0%8.2%
200412.2%5.4%
200812.8%5.8%
20129.8%3.9%
20169.9%3.7%
20209.4%3.5%
20219.3%3.2%

Source: Federal Reserve

While it’s true that Americans are less burdened by their mortgages, we must acknowledge the decrease in mortgage rates that took place over the same period.

With the Fed now increasing rates to calm inflation, Americans could see their mortgages begin to eat up a larger chunk of their paycheck. In fact, mortgage rates have already risen for seven consecutive weeks.

Trends in Non-Housing Consumer Debt

The key stories in non-housing consumer debt are student loans and auto loans.

The former category of debt has grown substantially over the past two decades, with growth tapering off during the pandemic. This can be attributed to COVID relief measures which have temporarily lowered the interest rate on direct federal student loans to 0%.

Additionally, these loans were placed into forbearance, meaning 37 million borrowers have not been required to make payments. As of April 2022, the value of these waived payments has reached $195 billion.

Over the course of the pandemic, very few direct federal borrowers have made voluntary payments to reduce their loan principal. When payments eventually resume, and the 0% interest rate is reverted, economists believe that delinquencies could rise significantly.

Auto loans, on the other hand, are following a similar trajectory as mortgages. Both new and used car prices have risen due to the global chip shortage, which is hampering production across the entire industry.

To put this in numbers, the average price of a new car has climbed from $35,600 in 2019, to over $47,000 today. Over a similar timeframe, the average price of a used car has grown from $19,800, to over $28,000.

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