The long shadow of the pandemic still hangs over markets. While the UK, US and the other early vaccinator countries can look forward to progressive relaxations of controls and strong cyclical recovery, other countries can still be hit by a flare up in the virus with the need for more restrictive action.
India has been struggling, with heavy pressure on its health services, while in Europe, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Balkan states lead the world tables for deaths in proportion to population.
Despite this, investors have anticipated a strong recovery from the very poor figures for output and profits recorded in most places a year ago. As expected, hard-hit sectors with the most ground to make up have largely done well in stock market terms ahead of a full reopening of the economy.
This year will be very good for profits overall. The technology success stories of lockdown are now reporting huge gains in turnover and profits last year, justifying the way their share prices have rocketed.
At the same time sectors damaged by lockdown are now reporting some lift in sales and margins as they find ways to offer their goods and services in a socially-distanced world.
The banks are reporting better figures, as they made substantial loan loss provisions last year that are not currently needed. Oil and other commodities have bounced in price from the lows of last spring, helping the producers. Even hospitality and travel are seeing a few signs of improvement, with investors willing to look ahead to a sharp recovery from very low levels.
My FT fund has made some more progress this year, helped by the switch I made away from Nasdaq tech-oriented market after its great run and into worldwide share index funds to capture more of the cyclical upswing.
Meanwhile, the digital and green revolutions which define our age, roll on. The digital giants are working on how to maintain the big strides they made in taking customers away from traditional media, retail, entertainment, events, communications and face-to-face services. They have an inbuilt advantage that now there are many more smartphones, pads, laptops and desktops out there, at home as well as in the office. There is also a much wider knowledge of how to download a video or buy a product online as those people who were slow to adopt the technology were forced into using it by lockdown.
Of course, many will still wish to enjoy real events, resume services in person and to travel and stay away from home. People will seek to catch up on lost holidays, celebrations and social contact. There will also be continued use of online everything on a greater scale than before the health crisis. There will be more homeworking and more online shopping long after the pandemic measures have been relaxed.
Governments in leading industrialised states are fixated with decarbonisation. 2021 will be the year of climate conferences: following the US Earth Day Summit in April, we have the G7 and G20 agendas in progress, and the United Nations COP26 world conference coming in November. Countries are offering tougher and earlier targets for cutting carbon dioxide.
The US has made an opening offer of 50 per cent off 2005 levels by 2030. The UK is offering 78 per cent off 1990 levels by 2035. The German election sees the Green party currently in first place in the polls offering to raise the German cut from 55 per cent of 1990 levels to 70 per cent by 2030. The Greens want an end to new internal combustion engine vehicles by 2030, and the end of coal use.
China is holding out, proposing only to start cutting by 2030 while increasing emissions this decade. But the country is well placed in the crucial technologies, materials and products the west needs to buy to try to hit its racy targets. There will be an increasing focus on practical solutions in travel, building heating and industry as the targets become tougher and more urgent. These are likely to increase interest in green hydrogen, as an alternative fuel.
After the sell off and lull in green shares in the first quarter it seems likely the weight of money seeking green investments will increase. This will bring forward more investment opportunities despite a background of low returns as companies respond to the drive for more renewable energy and the electric revolution. Ambitious plans by the major countries and the pressures coming to secure more ethical and environmental investing will sustain the interest despite the high prices already achieved in share markets for existing investments.
My FT portfolio continues to hold substantial cash and shorter-dated inflation-linked bonds, rather than fixed income bonds of the more traditional kind, and we keep to the agreed minimum of 40 per cent of the fund in bonds, rather than more risky share assets.
President Joe Biden’s wish to boost US welfare by adding his American Families Plan to his agreed American Rescue Plan and his infrastructure investment budget will create more inflationary pressures and make it more difficult for bond owners.
At some point investors could become more worried about tax rises and interest rate rises to come, but for now they are concentrating on a lively recovery.
Sir John Redwood is chief global strategist for Charles Stanley. The FT Fund is a dummy portfolio intended to demonstrate how investors can use a wide range of ETFs to gain exposure to global stock markets while keeping down the costs of investing.