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The Year in Review: 2020 in 20 Visualizations

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Can you remember a year more life-changing than 2020?

Over a million lives were lost in the pandemic, oil prices turned negative, and protests swept the streets. At the same time, 10 years of technology advancements seemed to happen in mere months—and now vaccinations are rolling out at a record speed.

Below, we round up some of the year’s biggest news events with charts and visualizations.


The Year in Review: 2020 in 20 Visualizations

Graphic #1   ⟩⟩   January 2020

Australian Bushfires

For some in the Southern Hemisphere who ushered in the new year first, it started on fire.

Reuters assessed the scale of the damage caused by bushfires across Australia. In fact, total burned areas reached 18.6 million hectares (186,000km²) by March, bigger than the total land mass of entire countries like Cuba.

Here’s the damage done in the state of New South Wales alone, compared to previous years:

australia nsw bushfire season 2019-2020

While bushfires are common in Australia, this year, dry conditions fueled the flames. The fires raged for nearly 80 days, displacing or killing nearly 3 billion animals—a devastating biodiversity loss for the country.

Graphic #2   ⟩⟩   January 2020

Rising Iran–U.S. Tensions

In early January, a U.S. air strike incinerated the car of General Qassim Suleimani, a security mastermind and one of Iran’s most powerful military strategists. U.S. officials claimed that Iran was planning an “imminent” attack.

In retaliation, Iran fired two rockets at U.S. military bases located in Iraq. No one was killed. As tensions escalated, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to try and restrict President Trump’s use of military power against Iran without approval.

iran missile flight PS752

Later, in mid-January, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard admitted that it mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, responsible for the death of 176 people.

Graphic #3   ⟩⟩   March 2020

The Spread of the “Novel Coronavirus”

You’ve heard of Patient Zero, but what about Patient 31?

Before February, cases of the still unnamed virus were largely contained within China, with the rest of the world cautiously observing the country’s containment efforts. Slowly, but surely, the virus began to spread beyond China’s borders.

South Korea’s 31st confirmed COVID-19 case—which was behind the rapid spread of the virus to potentially up to 1,160 contacts in the country—served as a warning to the rest of the world of how fast the virus could spread.

patient 31 south korea covid-19 superspreader
» See the full graphic by Reuters

Reuters’ unique graphic explainer uncovers how just one typical day of multiple “normal” interactions had significant super-spreader effects.

Graphic #4   ⟩⟩   March 2020

The Coronavirus Crash

The S&P 500 erased over a third of its value in under a month—the fastest 30% decline ever recorded on the benchmark index.

As a result, the global tourism industry suffered dramatic losses, with countless cruise ships docked and passenger flights traveling at half-capacity.

beach stocks covid-19

This graphic shows the BEACH stocks—booking, entertainment & live events, airlines, cruises & casinos, hotels & resorts—that were most impacted by worldwide travel bans.

While some of these stocks have since recovered, the ongoing impact of COVID-19 is still most widely being felt among companies in these types of industries.

Graphic #5 & 6   ⟩⟩   March 2020

Lockdown Life Begins

From toilet paper hoarding to limits on gatherings, the pandemic’s immediate effects on our surrounding environment became clear as early as March. As daily life came to a standstill, commuter activity in major cities plummeted throughout the month.

covid-19 city shutdown mobility

One unintended positive consequence of these shutdowns? Air pollution, such as nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) emissions also steeply dropped alongside these restrictions on movement.

Possibly the most well-known diagram of the pandemic is the one that introduced the world to the phrase “flatten the curve”, showing why it was important to prevent and delay the spread of the virus so that large portions of the population aren’t sick at the same time.

flattening the covid19 curve

Graphic #7   ⟩⟩   April 2020

Historic U.S. Job Losses

After the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, unemployment figures soon hit historic proportions.

Within a month, 22 million in the U.S. had filed jobless claims.

historic covid-19 job losses

To put this in perspective, U.S. unemployment levels in 2020 were roughly 10 times higher than previous peak unemployment levels in absolute terms. Or, to look at it another way, this is equivalent to the entire population of Chile or Taiwan.

Graphic #8   ⟩⟩   April 2020

Stimulus Announced in the U.S.

On March 27, the $2 trillion CARES Act came into law after facing minimal resistance from the House and Senate. We broke down the historic relief package in the Sankey diagram below.

anatomy of covid-19 stimulus package cares act

The relief package included $1,200 direct deposits to individuals, over $350 billion in relief for small businesses, and an excess of $100 billion for the U.S. health system.

Graphic #9   ⟩⟩   April 2020

Oil Prices Go Negative

In another historic event, oil prices went negative for the first time in history. Futures contracts for WTI oil fell to a stunning -$37.63 on April 20th, with producers actually paying traders to take oil off their hands.

negative oil explainer charts

Oil has since recovered from this shock, cruising back to more typical price levels.

Graphic #10   ⟩⟩   May 2020

Black Lives Matter Protests

“I can’t breathe.” These few words sparked the ongoing flames of a significant movement this summer: Black Lives Matter (BLM).

After the killing of George Floyd on May 25, by police, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) recorded over 7,750 BLM-linked demonstrations over a three month span.

george floyd blm protests and riots

The nationwide pattern of civil unrest is well-documented, but there’s been no time like the present to demand change. Though images of burning cars and police clashes dominated the headlines, in the end, 93% of the protests were peaceful.

There’s also been a ripple effect, with thousands of similar rallies reported in countries around the world.

Graphic #11 & 12  ⟩⟩   May 2020

The World Works from Home

The dramatic shift to staying at home has resulted in a much higher reliance on technology for many people. Nowhere were these trends exemplified more than the rise of video conferencing software Zoom—the platform was used for work, education, and socializing alike.

As monthly users swelled, those who typically take to the skies also declined in a steep fashion. In this graphic from May, we noted that Zoom’s market capitalization had skyrocketed to eclipse the top seven airlines by revenue, combined.

zoom market cap bigger than airlines

As remote work became the new normal for significant shares of the workforce, unique benefits of this adjusted lifestyle arose, but it didn’t come without its challenges.

remote working benefits and struggles

Perhaps the most significant lasting change from the COVID-19 pandemic might be the adoption of flexible work, even by firms that resisted the trend in the past.

If many employees continue to work remotely, even part of the time, then that will have a big impact on everything from the commercial office market to the bottom line of SaaS companies that help facilitate remote collaboration among teams.

Graphic #13   ⟩⟩   July 2020

Tesla becomes World’s Most Valuable Automaker

2020 was a hallmark year for Tesla. In June, it became the most valuable automaker in the world—surpassing the likes of Toyota, Volkswagen, and Honda.

Tesla’s market valuation climbed over 375% since June 2019. While these soaring figures are one factor behind its rise, others include record Model 3 sales, which prompted market euphoria.

Tesla most valuable automaker

But Tesla’s story is far from over.

The company is now worth more than the largest nine automakers combined, and is set to enter the S&P 500 officially on December 21, 2020. Tesla will be the most valuable company to ever enter the index, ranking as the eighth-largest overall.

Graphic #14   ⟩⟩   July 2020

Big Tech’s Dominance

In many ways, COVID-19 only accentuated differences in market share, earnings, and wealth.

For one, Big Tech’s market cap share of the S&P 500 soared. In the seven years preceding July, the market cap of the six stocks—Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Alphabet, and Microsoft—grew over 500%. By contrast, the S&P 500 rose just 110%.

faangm vs sp500

At the same time, Big Tech’s concentration reached record levels, with the five largest companies accounting for over 20% of the index’s total value.

Graphic #15   ⟩⟩   August 2020

Beirut Explosion

While the world grappled with numerous biological and natural disasters, human-error led to a deadly explosion that rocked Beirut’s port. The blast was broadcast around the world in real time as people filmed the fire on their devices.

Using satellite data, NASA and NYT mapped the extent of the damage, which claimed 135 lives and affected 305,000 more.

beirut explosion damage
» See the full interactive explainer by NYT

This explosion was the biggest accident of its kind in modern history, triggered by the exposure of combustible ammonium nitrate—a key ingredient in fertilizers—to an open flame due to poor storage. Beyond the human toll, the financial cost of this explosion is estimated at above $15 billion.

ammonium nitrate explosions

Graphic #16   ⟩⟩   August 2020

Shortest Bear Market in History Ends

In a stunning reversal, the bear market of 2020 ended on August 18 when the S&P 500 exceeded previous February highs. As trillions of dollars in stimulus response got injected into global economies, markets recovered in record time.

sp500 Market Crashes

Just two weeks before the shortest bear market in history ended, we published a graphic comparing previous stock crashes—from 1987’s Black Monday to the Nixon Shock of 1973—exposing the duration and intensity of market downturns since 1929.

Graphic #17   ⟩⟩   August 2020

U.S. Wildfire Season

Reddish-orange skies might seem otherworldly, but this fall, they were a common sight across the West Coast of North America, where air quality reached the “hazardous” category for long stretches of time.

U.S. west coast air quality

2020 was the most active year on record for wildfires yet, with California and Oregon being particularly hard-hit. While some wildfires are caused by natural occurrences like lightning strikes, an overwhelming majority (85-90%) happen because of human causes such as discarded cigarettes and campfire debris.

This is an unprecedented event. We now have the largest wildfire in [California’s] history, as well as the third largest and the fourth largest and five of the Top 10.

– Noah Diffenbaugh, professor and senior fellow at Stanford University

Graphic #18   ⟩⟩   November 2020

The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election

In 2020, U.S. election spending hit over $13 billion, more than twice the amount spent on the entire 2016 election.

Of this total, congressional spending topped $7 billion, with Democrats spending 64% more than Republican candidates for the House and Senate.

2020 election spending

President Biden was the first candidate ever to raise $1 billion, while Trump raised $596 million.

Graphic #19   ⟩⟩   December 2020

COVID-19’s Third Wave

Like history tells us, pandemics come in waves. The third wave of COVID-19 escalated in November, when cases began to surge.

On November 8, the seven-day average of new daily cases hit 100,000 in America. By the end of November, global cases soared to 60 million. Since then, cases have trended upward, leading local governments worldwide to enforce social distancing requirements for the winter holiday season.

The below graphic from Reddit helps show the latest surge in cases in the U.S.:

third-wave-gif

Graphic #20   ⟩⟩   December 2020

Global Vaccination Effort Kicks Off

In more recent news, Pfizer made waves when it announced it was rolling out a 95% effective COVID-19 vaccine. Then followed Moderna, at 94.5% in mid-November. As the global vaccination race intensifies, Bloomberg tracks the progress of nine vaccines and 80 publicly disclosed distribution deals representing 7.95 billion vaccination doses.

However, even with viable vaccines, challenges still exist. All around the world, perceptions of vaccine safety have dropped significantly, which may complicate an economic recovery.

vaccine perceptions global

On to the Next One

After the wild ride that was 2020, many people are wondering what 2021 will have in store.

In the first half of the year, vaccine distribution will surely take center stage. As well, economic recovery will be in focus as physical businesses resume more typical activity and regions slowly open up travel and tourism again.

Much like the financial crisis of 2008 was an inflection point for the economy, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the course of human history. Chaos can breed opportunity, and even though unemployment spiked to record highs in the U.S., new business applications did as well.

Will things return to “normal”? As the many twists and turns of the past year have demonstrated, our complex, interconnected world is far from static. The next black swan is always just around the corner.

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Markets

How the Top Cryptocurrencies Performed in 2021

Cryptocurrencies had a breakout year in 2021, providing plenty of volatility and strong returns across crypto’s various sectors.

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crypto prices 2021

The Returns of Top Cryptocurrencies in 2021

2021 saw the crypto markets boom and mature, with different sectors flourishing and largely outperforming the market leader, bitcoin.

While bitcoin only managed to return 59.8% last year, the crypto sector’s total market cap grew by 187.5%, with many of the top coins offering four and even five-digit percentage returns.

2021 Crypto Market Roundup

Last year wasn’t just a breakout year for crypto in terms of returns, but also the growing infrastructure’s maturity and resulting decorrelation of individual crypto industries and coins.

Crypto’s infrastructure has developed significantly, and there are now many more onramps for people to buy altcoins that don’t require purchasing and using bitcoin in the process. As a result, many cryptocurrency prices were more dictated by the value and functionality of their protocol and applications rather than their correlation to bitcoin.

CryptocurrencyCategory2021 Returns
BitcoinCryptocurrency59.8%
EthereumSmart Contract Platform399.2%
Binance CoinExchange Token1,268.9%
SolanaSmart Contract Platform11,177.8%
CardanoSmart Contract Platform621.3%
XRPCryptocurrency277.8%
TerraSmart Contract Platform12,967.3%
AvalancheSmart Contract Platform3,334.8%
PolkadotSmart Contract Platform187.9%
DogecoinMeme Coin3,546.0%

Sources: TradingView, Binance, Uniswap, FTX, Bittrex

Bitcoin wasn’t the only cryptocurrency that didn’t manage to reach triple-digit returns in 2021. Litecoin and Bitcoin Cash also provided meagre double-digit percentage returns, as payment-focused cryptocurrencies were largely ignored for projects with smart contract capabilities.

Other older projects like Stellar Lumens (109%) and XRP (278%) provided triple-digit returns, with Cardano (621%) being the best performer of the old guard despite not managing to ship its smart contract functionality last year.

The Rise of the Ethereum Competitors

Ethereum greatly outpaced bitcoin in 2021, returning 399.2% as the popularity boom of NFTs and creation of DeFi 2.0 protocols like Olympus (OHM) expanded possible use-cases.

But with the rise of network activity, a 50% increase in transfers in 2021, Ethereum gas fees surged. From minimums of $20 for a single transaction, to NFT mint prices starting around $40 and going into the hundreds on congested network days, crypto’s retail crowd migrated to other smart contract platforms with lower fees.

Alternative budding smart contract platforms like Solana (11,178%), Avalanche (3,335%), and Fantom (13,207%) all had 4-5 digit percentage returns, as these protocols built out their own decentralized finance ecosystems and NFT markets.

With Ethereum set to merge onto the beacon chain this year, which uses proof of stake instead of proof of work, we’ll see if 2022 brings lower gas fees and retail’s return to Ethereum if the merge is successful.

Dog Coins Meme their Way to the Top

While many new cryptocurrencies with strong functionality and unique use-cases were rewarded with strong returns, it was memes that powered the greatest returns in cryptocurrencies this past year.

Dogecoin’s surge after Elon Musk’s “adoption” saw many other dog coins follow, with SHIB benefitting the most and returning an astounding 19.85 million percent.

But ever since Dogecoin’s run from $0.07 to a high of $0.74 in Q2 of last year, the original meme coin’s price has slowly bled -77% down to $0.17 at the time of writing. After the roller coaster ride of last year, 2022 started with a positive catalyst for Dogecoin holders as Elon Musk announced DOGE can be used to purchase Tesla merchandise.

Gamifying the Crypto Industry

The intersection between crypto, games, and the metaverse became more than just a pipe dream in 2021. Axie Infinity was the first crypto native game to successfully establish a play to earn structure that combines its native token (AXS) and in-game NFTs, becoming a sensation and source of income for many in the Philippines.

Other crypto gaming projects like Defi Kingdoms are putting recognizable game interfaces on decentralized finance applications, with the decentralized exchange becoming the town’s “marketplace” and yield farms being the “gardens” where yield is harvested. This fantasy aesthetic is more than just a new coat of paint, as the project with $1.04B of total value locked is developing an underlying play-to-earn game.

Along with gamification, 2021 saw crypto native and non-crypto developers put a big emphasis on the digital worlds or metaverses users will inhabit. Facebook’s name change to Meta resulted in the two prominent metaverse projects The Sandbox (SAND) and Decentraland (MANA) surge another few hundred percent to finish off the year at 16,261% and 4,104% returns respectively.

With so many eyes on the crypto sector after the 2021’s breakout year, we’ll see how developing U.S. regulation and changing macro conditions affect cryptocurrencies in 2022.

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Energy

The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns (2012-2021)

Energy fuels led the way as commodity prices surged in 2021, with only precious metals providing negative returns.

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commodity returns 2021 preview

The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns (2022 Edition)

For investors, 2021 was a year in which nearly every asset class finished in the green, with commodities providing some of the best returns.

The S&P Goldman Sachs Commodity Index (GSCI) was the third best-performing asset class in 2021, returning 37.1% and beating out real estate and all major equity indices.

This graphic from U.S. Global Investors tracks individual commodity returns over the past decade, ranking them based on their individual performance each year.

Commodity Prices Surge in 2021

After a strong performance from commodities (metals especially) in the year prior, 2021 was all about energy commodities.

The top three performers for 2021 were energy fuels, with coal providing the single best annual return of any commodity over the past 10 years at 160.6%. According to U.S. Global Investors, coal was also the least volatile commodity of 2021, meaning investors had a smooth ride as the fossil fuel surged in price.

Commodity2021 Returns
Coal160.61%
Crude Oil55.01%
Gas46.91%
Aluminum42.18%
Zinc31.53%
Nickel26.14%
Copper25.70%
Corn22.57%
Wheat20.34%
Lead18.32%
Gold-3.64%
Platinum-9.64%
Silver-11.72%
Palladium-22.21%

Source: U.S. Global Investors

The only commodities in the red this year were precious metals, which failed to stay positive despite rising inflation across goods and asset prices. Gold and silver had returns of -3.6% and -11.7% respectively, with platinum returning -9.6% and palladium, the worst performing commodity of 2021, at -22.2%.

Aside from the precious metals, every other commodity managed double-digit positive returns, with four commodities (crude oil, coal, aluminum, and wheat) having their best single-year performances of the past decade.

Energy Commodities Outperform as the World Reopens

The partial resumption of travel and the reopening of businesses in 2021 were both powerful catalysts that fueled the price rise of energy commodities.

After crude oil’s dip into negative prices in April 2020, black gold had a strong comeback in 2021 as it returned 55.01% while being the most volatile commodity of the year.

Natural gas prices also rose significantly (46.91%), with the UK and Europe’s natural gas prices rising even more as supply constraints came up against the winter demand surge.

Energy commodity returns 2021

Despite being the second worst performer of 2020 with the clean energy transition on the horizon, coal was 2021’s best commodity.

High electricity demand saw coal return in style, especially in China which accounts for one-third of global coal consumption.

Base Metals Beat out Precious Metals

2021 was a tale of two metals, as precious metals and base metals had opposing returns.

Copper, nickel, zinc, aluminum, and lead, all essential for the clean energy transition, kept up last year’s positive returns as the EV batteries and renewable energy technologies caught investors’ attention.

Demand for these energy metals looks set to continue in 2022, with Tesla having already signed a $1.5 billion deal for 75,000 tonnes of nickel with Talon Metals.

Metals price performance 2021

On the other end of the spectrum, precious metals simply sunk like a rock last year.

Investors turned to equities, real estate, and even cryptocurrencies to preserve and grow their investments, rather than the traditionally favorable gold (-3.64%) and silver (-11.72%). Platinum and palladium also lagged behind other commodities, only returning -9.64% and -22.21% respectively.

Grains Bring Steady Gains

In a year of over and underperformers, grains kept up their steady track record and notched their fifth year in a row of positive returns.

Both corn and wheat provided double-digit returns, with corn reaching eight-year highs and wheat reaching prices not seen in over nine years. Overall, these two grains followed 2021’s trend of increasing food prices, as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s food price index reached a 10-year high, rising by 17.8% over the course of the year.

Grains price performance 2021

As inflation across commodities, assets, and consumer goods surged in 2021, investors will now be keeping a sharp eye for a pullback in 2022. We’ll have to wait and see whether or not the Fed’s plans to increase rates and taper asset purchases will manage to provide price stability in commodities.

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